More than 75 percent of Arizona high school students said they felt safe and secure at school, according to the 2013 Arizona High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
There are several kinds of safety, said Dr. Kris Bosworth, a University of Arizona education professor who spoke at the Arizona 2013 Safe and Supportive Schools Conference held Dec. 4, 2013 and author of Protective Schools: Linking Drug Abuse Prevention with Student Success and co-author of Promoting Student Resiliency.
“One comes from feeling physically safe – you will not be physically hurt,” Bosworth said. “The other is emotional safety – you feel secure and that you will be able to take risks, be yourself, make mistakes and you will not be belittled, humiliated, embarrassed or punished.”
While school shootings get the most media attention, Arizona students are more likely to be offered illegal drugs on school grounds (31 percent), harassed or bullied while on campus (29 percent) or have personal items stolen or damaged at school (23 percent), according to the Arizona High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
“Danger and violence to children is a public health emergency in the United States. It should be looked at through a public health lens,” said Dr. Joel Dvoskin, a University of Arizona assistant professor of psychiatry who was part of the threat assessment group who looked into the Columbine school shooting. “That means you do primary prevention like teaching kids how to assert their safety, how to behave safely, how to behave safely towards each other, and help the kids to not get victimized.”
More than four percent of Arizona students said they carried a gun, knife, or club at school, 9.1 percent said they had been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property and 8.8 percent said they have been in a physical fight on campus.
One way to change that is to create a school culture where students feel safe, respected and fairly treated and there are a variety of programs developed by psychologists, educators and sociologists to do that, Dvoskin said.
“Students themselves need to be involved in creating climates that feel safe to them,” Bosworth said. “Adults must be responsible to make sure that the climate is safe.”
Teaching kids how to resolve differences and handle conflict early on can also reduce in-school suspensions and violence in schools, Dvoskin said.
“Antibullying programs – so kids don’t feel like they need to bring a weapon to school – are far more valuable than trying to figure out a way to keep weapons out of school physically with metal detectors,” Dvoskin said.
The Arizona Department of Education and Bosworth’s research group are working together on a federal Safe and Supportive Schools grant that would promote positive environments in high-needs high schools.
“A positive system is based on data, establishes positively stated rules, acknowledges students who follow the rules and has consistent consequences for behavioral errors,” Bosworth said.
Bosworth noted that “students who feel protected in their environment and connected to that environment are much less likely to engage in risk taking behavior.”
“Many schools have adopted a Positive Behavior Interventions & Supports approach; however, unlike the majority of states, there is no supported infrastructure at the state level for training and support,” Bosworth said.
Violent deaths at school are rare – with 31 in fiscal year 2011, according to the recently released Indicators of School Crime and Safety Report 2013. Students 12- to 18- years old were more often victims of assault at school (749,200), thefts on campus (615,6000) or serious violent victimizations on school grounds (89,000), according to report.
According to the Centers for Disease Control’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey 2013, 24 percent of high school students reported being in at least one physical fight, 18 percent carried a weapon, 20 percent said they were bullied at school, 7.1 percent missed a day of school because they felt unsafe on their way to or from school and 6.9 percent said they’d been threatened or injured with a weapon on school property.
To prevent these issues, the Centers for Disease Control suggested increasing students’ skills to choose nonviolent, safe behaviors, fostering positive, nurturing relationships between caring adults and youth, developing school-wide activities to foster social connectedness, sustain a safe physical community environment and build stable communities through economic opportunities.
School leaders should ask local law enforcement to walk through the school to get familiar with its layout and make recommendations on lighting, landscaping, easily accessible space students and staff can take shelter in, and other items, Dvoskin said.
Nationally, 88 percent of public schools said they controlled access to the school by locking or monitoring doors, 64 percent use cameras to monitor the school, and 43 percent had one or more security person at school at least once a week, according to the Indicators of School Crime and Safety Report 2013.
But Dvoskin does not recommend relying on cameras for security.
“The only thing video is good for is telling you what happened after the fact,” Dvoskin said. “Mainly, because it’s never watched and if it is there’s too many cameras for anyone to keep track of.”
Instead, teachers and staff should spend time getting to know students and easily view areas students gather in, Dvoskin said.
“I would spend money on paying teachers more so you have a lower rate of turnover,” Dvoskin said. “One of the most important ways to keep the school safe is to know the kids. If you’re turning over ¾ of the teachers in a year, you’re not going to know the kids very well.”
School leaders should listen to the concerns of kids, teachers and staff, provide training and develop a threat assessment team, Dvoskin said.
“Many of these horrible tragedies were preceded by people telling other people their intentions and nothing happened as a result of it. Better communication is needed,” Dvoskin said. “When a teacher, staff member or a student is scaring people, there’s a trained team to get together and decide what kind of help the person needs.”
An often overlooked area of critical importance for schools is students’ mental health needs and suicide prevention.
No Arizona students were killed at school in 2011, but 72 Arizona youth up to 19 years old killed themselves in the same time period, according to Arizona Department of Health Service’s Bureau of Public Health statistics.
“We know how common suicide is and we know how rare mass homicide is,” Dvoskin said. “It doesn’t make a lot of sense to put a huge amount of resources into a rare and unpredictable thing and much less resources in the predictable much more common event.”
Thirty six percent of Arizona students said they felt so sad or hopeless for two weeks or more that they stopped doing their usual activities, 22 percent purposely hurt themselves by cutting or burning themselves, 19 percent seriously considered trying to kill themselves during the past year and 10.6 percent tried to kill themselves, according to the 2013 Arizona High School Youth Risk Behavior Survey.
Putting psychologists in schools “who have time to identify, assess, refer and even give some emergency support to kids” in crisis and “provide teachers with consultative support for difficult kids” would be another way to increase school safety, Dvoskin said.
“When 20 children are killed at the same time, it is an unspeakable tragedy,” Dvoskin said. “But I’m offended by the fact that when 20 children are killed one at a time that the American media doesn’t seem to care very much.”