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Trying to Make Sense of School Violence

When an 18-year-old student at the Urban Assembly School for Wildlife Conservation in the New York City system stabbed to death one student and critically wounded another with a switchblade knife, even hard-boiled experts were shocked   ("Where Students Were Stabbed, a School on a Downward Slide," The New York Times, Sep. 30).  Although no school can be made totally secure, this particular school was a ticking time bomb, as evidenced by a survey last year showing that only 55 percent of enrolled students felt safe.  Their concern was seconded when just 19 percent of teachers said they would recommend the school.

Violence on school grounds can take many different forms and be caused by many different factors.  But metal detectors should be the first step in dealing with the problem.  It's not that students can't maim other students when metal detectors are in place, but at least the objects used can be reduced.  In the latest case, bullying was thought to be the trigger.  If that is found out to be true, then the principal was also derelict in her duty for not addressing the issue more effectively.  If doing so resulted in a rise in suspensions, so be it.  Moreover, if the suspension rate happened to have a "disparate impact," so be it as well.

The first duty of principals is to provide a safe environment for learning.   When I was teaching in the Los Angeles Unified School District, the principal took what was then an unprecedented step and had the district assign two armed security agents to roam the campus.   He had observed gang members loitering adjacent to the campus.  Rather than wait until violence occurred, he moved swifty to protect students and faculty.  His decision was first resisted by some teachers, but they soon came to appreciate his decision.

One of the reasons that parents choose charter schools is that they are nearly three times safer than other public schools, even after demographic factors like poverty, race and disability are taken into account. I'm not at all surprised by this finding because when parents opt for charter schools, they are far more likely to be involved in the education of their children than they are in traditional public schools. If their children are being bullied, they are going to demand immediate intervention by the charter school principal. 

Violence in public schools is never going to be eliminated.  But it can be reduced if principals are doing their job. I hope we don't have to wait for another tragedy to learn the truth about this statement.

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