Finding the Keys to School Safety
by Terry Brenner
Donated by Sopris West Inc., a publisher in Denver, these materials have gathered no dust. They've been pored over, contemplated, discussed and painstakingly culled for the factors that show up again and again as keys to school safety. These factors, about 24 in all, are being fashioned into a survey that administrators and other school personnel can use to assess their buildings and other important aspects of school environment.
Rick van den Pol, director of UM's Division of Educational Research and Service, is principal investigator for this twopronged research effort the Missoula County Safe Schools and Native American Community Safety projects. Working with him are psychology Professor David Schuldberg; Torian Donohoe, an employee of the NASA Earth Observing System project on campus; and DERS personnel Stacia Jepson, Bob Henthorn, Chris Daday and Lucy Hart Paulson.
What we've tried to do is research literature that talks about what we know promotes school violence and the flip side of that coin enhances safety, van den Pol says. We're looking for the common hit in multiple different sources, using a sort of triangulated approach: What keeps showing up as something that works."
Funding for the safe schools project is a one-year, $350,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Education. Grants for second and third years depend on appropriations from Congress. So with only a year's funding assured, van den Pol and his team have laid out an ambitious plan.
Finally, van den Pol says, Where the data suggest an area of deficit or need, we'll link that on the Internet with no-cost, low-cost, moderate-cost and expensive programs and consultants who are available to address those issues."
Along the way they will coordinate their efforts with Missoula County Public Schools, Missoula City Police Department, Missoula County Sheriff's Office, Montana Behavioral Initiative, Montana Board of Crime Control and UM's CO-TEACH Preschool Program.
The most recent draft of the survey has two parts. Part I seeks to find out whether safe-school components are present in the school. Part II considers whether they are effective. The 24 factors on which the survey is based include, for example, a plan for building positive student behavior, clearly defined rules for behavior, commitment to parent involvement, violence prevention programs such as mediation and anger management, a process to identify young children with potential problems, awareness of warning signs of violent student behavior, teachers able to reach a wide range of learners, policies to minimize gang involvement and gang-like activities, and curricula that promote understanding of ethnic and cultural diversity.
Missoula County schools will complete the survey, both at the administrative level and then down through teachers, custodians, students and parents, van den Pol says. Once we have enough buildings that have participated, we can actually start to provide some statewide norms."
From these norms, school personnel can judge where their schools stand relative to the average. If a school fares poorly on the survey, Internet links can offer help with each priority need identified. Van den Pol hopes that schools will use the survey perhaps three times a year as a tool to test whether using the help available on the Internet has resulted in improved school climate.
Noticeably absent from the survey is any mention of weapons detectors.
That's because they aren't considered effective, van den Pol says.
Security companies are selling weapons-detection systems to schools all across the country, he says. And yet, according to some experts, no weapons-detection system would have prevented any of the tragedies that occurred in the last half dozen situations. Unless you harden the school in such a way as to cause concern about things like fire evacuation, it's easy for kids to get weapons into schools.
This has led many educators to step back and ask what can be done to help eliminate the motivation to commit an act of violence. In the long run, van den Pol thinks those efforts are much more likely to get results because many of them focus on promoting acceptance, tolerance, diversity and high scholastic standards for every child relative to his or her abilities.
Schools with high academic components tend not to have problems with behavioral disruptions or at the extreme end of the continuum school violence, he says. Schools that have high levels of disruption and violence tend to have low measures of academic achievement.
Charting new territory
One of the things Congress has heard over and over is If you don't do anything else, please do something to help us with juvenile crime on the reservations, she says. Our young people are getting away.
Not only do Indian schools have the same social and facility-design problems that non-native schools have, but the communities have major drug, alcohol and unemployment problems, Donohoe says. School dropout rates are high more than 50 percent for high school students on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, for example. Such problems, she says, are exacerbated by fractionated law enforcement caused by overlapping tribal, county and state jurisdictions.
The Indian schools project has two goals for the year: gather information about behavior problems facing public schools on the reservations and develop a curriculum focusing on community solutions. The effort will be channeled through the Montana Impact Aid Schools Council. Montana Impact Aid Schools are federally funded, include all the public schools on the reservations and enroll more than 10,000 students. By working through the council, Donohoe and van den Pol hope to get information from public school leaders on all the reservations.
The curriculum that comes out of the project will be shared, piloted, evaluated and then sent out so that it can be replicated on reservations nationwide.
With this project we're charting new territory, Donohoe says. This is
a new focus. Before, all the focus has been either on the urban schools or the schools
like those in Missoula, but no one has done much work on Indian reservations.