Supported by the California Endowment, this post is part of a series, “Galvanizing the Civic Sector to Reduce Gun Violence.” The series focuses on what several sectors – parents, teens, schools, hospitals, law enforcement, the faith community, the philanthropic and business sectors, civic leaders and others – can do, independent of state and federal legislative activity, to reduce violence and the number of gun-related injuries and deaths.
For the most part, schools are extremely safe. While school administrators cannot control everything that happens within and around their schools, there are many steps they can take to enhance the safety of the school environment. Among other actions, the National School Safety Center recommends mandating crime reporting and tracking, conducting safety training, establishing a comprehensive safety and crisis response plan, and creating safe school partnerships and information-sharing agreements. These actions can help schools “prepare for a crisis, avoid a crisis, preclude successive crises and…lead the healing process following a crisis.”
But making schools safe is not the core intent of this posting.[i] Exploring the role of schools as a violence prevention resource to the entire community is.
Schools play a vital if not central role in the prevention of violence. The school is the one place in our society where children can be found on a relatively consistent basis. It is a place where our youth can and must be protected, a place where students are equipped to become the next generation’s contributing citizens. Those who care about reducing violence cannot ignore the important ways in which school policies, practices and partnerships shape the life trajectories of their students as well as the safety and stability of the communities in which they are located.
School District Decisions Matter: The Example of Zero Tolerance
One of the most fundamental ways in which schools can prevent violent crime is by keeping students in school and on track to graduate. Disconnection from school signals current and future trouble. Research shows that truancy and curfew violations are important risk indicators, and that school policies can have broad spillover effects on public safety if not carefully designed.
For instance, in its examination of “zero tolerance” disciplinary policies that mandate suspension or expulsion of students, the Vera Institute cites a Texas study, in which a single suspension or expulsion for a discretionary offense that did not include a weapon almost tripled a student’s chance of becoming involved in the juvenile justice system. The Institute’s report concludes that “a generation after the rise of these policies and practices, neither schools nor young people have benefited.” The report also describes promising alternatives that can safely keep kids in school. Such policies have been advocated by federal agency leaders and prominent private entities such as the Council of State Governments, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Psychological Association.
In its January 5, 2014 editorial, “Zero Tolerance, Reconsidered,” the New York Times reported that schools “across the country are rethinking zero tolerance discipline policies under which children have been suspended, even arrested, for minor offenses like cursing, getting into shoving matches…that in years past would have been resolved with detention or meetings with a child’s parents.” Citing data, the editorial points out that minority students are “disproportionately singled out for harsh disciplinary measures,” and that suspensions heighten risks for “low achievement, being held back, or becoming permanently entangled in the juvenile justice system.” Changes are afoot: the Los Angeles school district became the first in the nation to ban suspensions for “willful defiance.” California’s Assemblyman Roger Dickinson has submitted a bill, AB 420 that would limit suspensions or expulsions of “any student who has disrupted school activities or otherwise willfully defied the valid authority of school personnel.”
Thus, every effort must be made to keep kids in school, to cut absentee and dropout rates, to intervene in the lives of kids as early as possible, and to give them hope for a better future. The importance of early intervention should not be minimized, as the effects of chronic exposure to violence can be spotted in pre-school and the inability to read proficiently by grade three presages a pattern of withdrawal and disconnection.
Partnerships Can Have an Even Greater Impact: Lessons from 21 Cities
While school district decisions can have a substantial impact on youth safety, schools cannot and must not carry the burden of violence prevention alone. In each of the 21 communities that have participated in the California Cities Violence Prevention Network and/or the National Forum on Youth Violence Prevention, citywide plans have been developed to blend prevention, intervention, enforcement and reentry strategies, with schools, in most of these cities, playing a pivotal role in preventing violence.
Examination of these plans reveals close working relationships among school district, city, county, private sector and nonprofit leaders. These partners are developing strategies to share information; keep kids in school at all costs with help from law enforcement, probation and service providers; provide students with mentors from the faith and business communities; connect afterschool programs to libraries, parks and recreation centers; and help children receive mental health services if they have been traumatized by early and constant exposure to violence. To help truant students remain in school and avoid exposure to the juvenile justice system, some communities have established school or community adjustment centers. The following examples give a small taste of the wide range of violence prevention activities involving local school systems.
Long Beach, California
As part of its overall violence prevention planning, the City of Long Beach aims to increase the high school graduation rate by emphasizing tutoring and mentoring, early interventions, involvement of parents, and an increase in internships and apprenticeships, most of which are made possible by strong community connections and support from library, after school and neighborhood services.
Louisville’s Mayor Greg Fischer and his team identified education as one of its core intervention strategies in reducing violence, and are developing programs and policies to support academic success. The mayor has signed an agreement with the superintendent of Jefferson County Public Schools that will focus on all aspects of education, from early childhood programming to college graduation.
Minneapolis, having instituted curfew and truancy laws, stresses school retention as a prime strategy for crime and violence prevention. School resource officers patrol and are trained to forge relationships. Bike Cops for Kids help provide free bikes and safety equipment. “Walking School Busses” help get kids to school safely. Every attempt is made to connect youth to a “caring and trusted adult,” along with exposure to employment opportunities.
Referencing Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACE) literature – which has found that childhood abuse, neglect and family dysfunction are associated with significant cognitive, social, emotional and health impairment and the adoption of high-risk behaviors – and drawing on the evidence-based Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports strategy, school-based clinics provide mental health services while PBIS addresses overall school climate (PBIS is not a curriculum but a framework guiding implementation of best academic and behavioral practices. PBIS outcomes include improved academic performance, improvement in class and school climate and reductions in tardiness, absenteeism and school suspensions). Bullying prevention instruction is available in most schools. To encourage reading and provide safe spaces, Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) has forged partnerships with the city’s parks and recreation department and the Hennepin County library system. The city’s Juvenile Supervision Center, a safe, supervised space for youth picked up for truancy and curfew violations, reconnects youth to school. To help prevent teen pregnancy, sex ed is taught in schools with technical assistance from the Minneapolis Health Department. And to help inculcate the value of education in parents, the MPS has worked with parents and community partners to launch its “Connecting Parents to Educational Opportunities” initiative.
San Diego, California
Recognizing that schools play a central role in prevention, San Diego’s Commission on Gang Prevention and Intervention has supported a “Safe Passages” initiative in three of the city’s middle schools. Based on a partnership among school officials, the police department, probation, the city attorney and the transit authority, “Safe Passages” aims to get youth to school safely, and to provide services for truant youth and their families. “Check and Connect,” a companion school-based program developed by the University of Minnesota, and part of a research study conducted by the American Institute for Research, provides mentors for students most at risk of dropping out of school and joining gangs. Five full-time mentors working in two high schools handle a caseload of roughly 50 students.
Boston’s plan leads with a vision of “youth and families thriving in safe and healthy neighborhoods, vibrant with opportunities for personal, spiritual, educational and economic growth.” The city’s neighborhood-based “Circle of Promise” initiative focuses on underperforming schools, and its “Community Learning Initiative,” led by the Boston Centers for Youth and Families, the Boston Public Schools (BPS) and the Boston Public Library, supplements school-day learning. In addition, the “One Card” currently being utilized by BPS students as their student ID, library card, transit pass and community center membership card provides new opportunities to share data and analyze usage of programs. Having revised its “Codes of Conduct,” BPS has witnessed a dramatic drop in school suspensions and expulsions – from 743 to 120 in two years.
Santa Rosa, California
Santa Rosa’s violence prevention vision, to “reclaim our youth for their families, schools, communities and futures,” includes goals for increasing school attendance, improving academic performance and raising high school graduation rates. Gang prevention efforts begin early with uniformed officers teaching the Gang Resistance and Education Program (G.R.E.A.T.) to third and fourth graders. Topics covered include bullying, respect for others, how to communicate and how to deal with anger. While difficult to determine whether the G.R.E.A.T. curriculum actually deters gang involvement, city officials assert that the simple act of getting children accustomed to talking with a uniformed officer has significant value in that children see an officer not just as someone who arrests, but as a caring teacher.
Santa Rosa’s police chief demonstrates his commitment to the vision by personally volunteering his time once per week at a local elementary school, reading to a third grade student through the local United Way Schools of Hope Program. The chief also volunteers with a local construction trade organization to speak to high school students about how the choices they make today will impact them for the rest of their lives.
Facing extremely high rates of school suspensions and truancy, the City of Memphis concentrates much of its violence prevention energy on schools. The city’s measurable goals include reduction in the number of school incidents, expulsions and suspensions and truant youth. Data sharing strategies help guide services. Shelby County Schools has established a “transitional school” for students returning from incarceration, followed by placement in one of four “preparatory academies” in order to recover credits, increase graduation rates and improve postsecondary readiness. Through the Memphis City Schools’ School House Adjustment Program (now expanding from 18 to 40 schools), the Shelby County’s District Attorney’s Office offers access to mentors in lieu of prosecution. Five faith-based organizations have pledged to “adopt” neighborhood schools.
Philadelphia’s Child Literacy Initiative attempts to close the achievement gap in preschool through third grade. A “Welcome Return Assessment Process,” based on a partnership among the school system, probation and Behavioral Health Services, provides transitional support for youth returning to the public school system from residential delinquency placement. The faith community, Big Brothers Big Sisters and MAD DADS provide mentors and tutors for youth pulling away from school. Summer enrichment initiatives are linked to college access programs. The school district partners with 25 community child care organizations to provide educational, nutritional and health assistance at the city’s Head Start centers.
Developing a Shared Understanding of Students’ Needs
Successful school retention and support strategies presuppose full knowledge of who the students are and what their family situations are. Such knowledge necessitates data sharing agreements, especially among schools and child welfare and law enforcement agencies (both police and district attorneys). These are often hard to attain, but in some cities, both formal and informal arrangements have proven successful.
A community cannot and must not wait until a child becomes a victim or perpetrator of violence to respond. The one place through which all of our children pass is the school. The school knows the children, and, other than the immediate family, sees and is in a position to respond to early warning signs of trouble. To respond effectively, schools need the active help of others, such as public and mental health, child welfare and law enforcement. Unless schools are involved as full and active partners, a city’s comprehensive planning effort will have little chance of success.
[i] For more information on creating an optimal school climate and promoting effective school safety strategies, visit the U.S. Department of Education’s Safe Supportive Learning website, http://safesupportivelearning.ed.gov or the National School Safety Center website at www.schoolsafety.us. The Department of Education also summarizes school crime and safety indicators, as well as disciplinary and security measures undertaken, at http://nces.ed.gov/programs/crimeindicators/crimeindicators2012/key.asp.