On Monday, February 27, 2012, 17 year-old Ohio student T.J. Lane allegedly opened fire on his Chardon High School classmates. Early reports sound familiar to what has been reported after similar incidents: T.J. was a “loner” that became increasingly disconnected from students he used to call friends, he had family issues, and he was the target of bullying.
Although much of the news coverage has surrounded Ohio gun laws, accessibility of minors to deadly weapons, and T.J. Lane’s personal history, attention should be paid to changes that can create safer school environments. Justice Policy Institute (JPI) has done extensive research on school safety, and last month JPI released a list of best practices that can make schools safer:
- Implement evidence-based initiatives proven to improve safety in schools. School districts should work toward abandoning zero tolerance and law enforcement responses to student behavior and begin relying on evidence-based programs that include peer mediation, mentoring and peaceable education.
- Hire more counselors. Guidance counselors and school psychologists are trained to be mentors and work with youth, and are a positive investment in schools. However, schools are not fully staffing according to accepted standards. The American School Counselor Association says that school counselors should consider their roles to include skills in conflict-resolution particular to schools, to intervene in cases of bullying and harassment, and to prevent and intervene in cases where there might be substance abuse issues or the potential for violence. Fully implemented guidance counselor programs have also been found to promote feelings of safety in both poorer and wealthier schools.
- Invest in education over increased justice system responses to student behavior. With the array of negative collateral consequences associated with involvement in the juvenile justice system, it is important that policymakers and administrators focus efforts to better our education system as opposed to relying on increased justice system interventions. Some ways to both improve student achievement and promote safer schools include increased hiring of quality teachers, staff, counselors, and other positive role models; building safe, clean schools; and providing training and supports for teachers and staff related to behavior management.
- Avoid policies that will make schools less safe, and harm kids. Unnecessary referrals to the juvenile justice system disrupt a student’s educational process – practices that can lead to suspension, expulsion, or other alienation from school. These negative effects set youth on a track to drop out of school and put them at greater risk of becoming involved in the justice system later on, all at tremendous costs to the youth themselves, their families, their communities and to taxpayers. More police in schools, including School Resource Officers (SROs) have not been shown to create more safety, and can have negative impacts both on school environment and on youth, as schools rely on arrests rather than school-based responses, pulling youth into the justice system.
JPI has worked on other educational initiatives, including a November 2011 report, “Education Under Arrest: The Case Against Police in Schools.”
Alternatives to juvenile detention were a major focus of this weekend’s 11th Annual Zealous Advocacy Conference held at the University of Houston Law Center. The conference was videotaped and will be available for CLE credit through the Center for Children, Law & Policy as early as next week. Please email Center4CLP@gmail.com if you are interested.
School bullying will continue to be a spotlight issue going forward. The new documentary, Bully, hits theaters this Friday, March 30th.
As always, please feel free to leave constructive comments about the Zealous Advocacy Conference, Bully, or any thoughts on how to make our schools safer for all students.