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Creating Safe Schools: Opening the Schoolhouse Doors to Research and Partnerships

Conference of the Security Management Institute of John Jay College, New York

Keynote Address
Good morning:

I am truly honored that you invited me to be your keynote speaker this morning. The challenge embraced by this conference -- providing safety in our Nation's public schools -- ranks at the top of anyone's list of important challenges facing our country. Your success in meeting this challenge provides the foundation upon which our teachers, administrators, guidance counselors, coaches and other caring adults can go about their important work -- educating our young people to face a rapidly changing, complex and demanding adult world.

We find powerful truth in the simple observation that our children are our future and, by sending our children to school, we entrust our future to the members of the school community. You know better than most the truth of another observation: we fail our children when we fail to provide safe school communities in which to learn and, by so doing, we jeopardize our future. So, in a very real sense, the challenge of providing safe schools is an investment in our future. If you succeed at your work, the Nation is much better off. Simple as that.

In my view, we have not yet been able to mobilize the resources and the will necessary to meet this challenge. You see on a daily basis the consequences of these failures. You see firsthand the damage that is caused. The students who are afraid to hang out after school because they fear for their safety. The lunchrooms that are disrupted because of conflicts between rival factions. The children afraid to use the restroom because they know who might be there. The kids who are forced to give up their lunch money every day. The teachers who can't teach because unruly students disrupt the classroom. The parents who take their children out of public schools out of concern for their children's safety. The young people who are injured or even killed when violence erupts. The chilling -- and sometimes numbing -- experience of entering school every day through a metal detector.

An observer from another era in our history could rightfully ask, What kind of a country have we become when our noble experiment in public education -- an experiment that provides the bedrock of our democracy -- has been undermined by our inability to provide a secure learning environment?

Yet there is reason for optimism today. Certainly the recent tragic incidents in Jonesboro, Paducah, Springfield, Richmond, Edinboro and others have galvanized public attention. Yet our optimism can be grounded on more than reactions to these events. This morning I hope to persuade you that we have learned some important lessons about the control of crime and disorder, about youth crime in particular, about the importance of good data, and about the importance of research. More specifically, my purpose is to offer some reflections on the role of research in helping you -- and through you, a broader community -- in providing some guideposts along the way as we move toward a safer school community. I hope to make three points -- first, that we need more data about school safety, second that we need to reach beyond the school boundaries to define the problem and solve the problem, and third that we need to challenge schools to see that safety is central to their core mission.

I should acknowledge at the outset that I bring some personal perspectives to this topic. As Richard Glover mentioned in his introduction, I had the honor of chairing the Chancellor's Advisory Panel on School Safety in 1993. Our Panel -- which also included Dr. Gerald Lynch, President of John Jay College of Criminal Justice where our conference is being held, and Prof. Ellen Schall of NYU's Wagner Graduate School of Public Service -- issued a report[1] that year making a number of recommendations for changing the response to school safety in New York City. I am pleased that many of our recommendations have been adopted, including upgrading the training of school safety officers which is now being conducted here at John Jay. But I must also quickly admit that I feel an enormous frustration that the situation has not improved more. Our Panel's recommendations echoed, in many respects, recommendations that had been made by commissions that had preceded us. And, even more disturbing, since we completed our work, another commission, chaired by Edward Costikyan, has come and gone and issued yet another report[2] that paralleled some of our findings and added new ones. New Yorkers are entitled to ask, has the situation improved significantly? This question is particularly acute in New York City because this city has made such impressive strides in overall crime reduction. Can New Yorkers say that their schools, like their city, are among the safest in the country?

How safe are the schools? The honest answer to this question is that it is hard to know. Data released by the Board of Education show mixed results. Comparing the 1996-97 school year with the prior year, serious incidents were down by 17% and less serious incidents rose by ten percent overall and 24% in elementary schools.[3] But the larger point made by our Panel, and echoed by the Costikyan Commission, was that the entire system for measuring school safety needed to be revamped. In order for the public to be confident that schools are getting safer, the reporting systems need to be independent, objective and open to scrutiny. Our Panel strongly recommended that responsibility for reporting of crimes in the schools should not rest with the Board of Education, rather should be the responsibility of the Police Department. Even this simple fix does not address the underlying issue, however. We need to develop multiple measures of school safety, not uniform reporting systems. Our Panel thought it was important to develop school-based victimization surveys that would ask students, teachers and administrators about their experiences in the schools. We need to develop measures that reflect the unique characteristics of the school environment. For example, the phenomenon of fear is a different phenomenon when applied to the school context and we need measurement tools that capture the fears of students. Finally, we need to report on the levels of safety in individual schools, not simply on a city-wide basis, so that parents, teachers, students and other community members can hold us accountable for results. This is the lesson of New York City's experience with COMPSTAT -- that public accountability can help reduce crime -- and this lesson should be applied to the schools as well.

We also need continuous measures to track progress or lack thereof. Occasional measures do not help in the diagnostic and evaluative work that needs to be done. In this regard, President Clinton's call for annual reports on school safety is vitally important for it establishes a continuous yardstick for measuring improvement. Finally, we need to look beyond the school walls for measures of school safety. The school community needs to be open to different definitions of the problem of school safety. Crimes that occur on a playground after school are just as serious as those that occur during the school day. The crimes that occur on a student's subway ride to school are as destructive of the student's ability to concentrate on homework as crimes that occur in the hallway.

So, our first order of business is to develop a much richer definition of the problem of school safety and a much richer set of measures -- both to track progress and to help define the problem. On this matter, I encourage the school community to find common cause with the criminal justice research community. My colleagues in that community are developing and testing new approaches to measurement of crime and disorder -- and new ways to use those data to assist in policy development. Two examples come to mind. As you may be aware, the "broken windows" theory of crime prevention developed first by George Kelling and James Q. Wilson suggests that low level disorder can be as destructive to a community as serious criminality[4]. I would suggest that this theory has particular applicability to the school environment. But, because the "broken windows" theory requires different data for decision making -- data about minor offenses, public interactions in public spaces, perceptions of safety, etc. -- the traditional measures of crime reported to the 911 system are of lesser value. In the school context, implementation of this theory of crime prevention would require measuring and paying attention to little things -- to the friction in the lunchroom, the vandalism in the gym, the intimidation that keeps kids from using public spaces.

A second example. One of the most important insights in the criminological literature comes from the statistical finding that a high percentage of crimes occur in a small percentage of places -- called "hot spots."[5] This research finding has profound implications for practice --police and communities are compelled, once a "hot spot" is identified, to do something about it. This finding is one of the building blocks for the COMPSTAT process in the New York City Police Department which maps out recent crime reports. If applied to the issue of school safety, this type of analysis could also alter practice. How would school safety incidents be displayed on a geo-coded map? Particularly if incidents that involved members of the school community but occurred outside the school building were included? I firmly believe that involvement of criminal justice researchers and practitioners in the issues of school safety could have revolutionary consequences for our approach to those issues.

Next, I would like to elaborate upon my observation that the school safety problem extends beyond the walls of the schools. For many of you, this may be a difficult notion to accept -- you are probably saying that educators and school safety personnel cannot be responsible for everything that happens outside of school. I want to press a different view. I believe that our limited success at providing safer schools comes, in part, from our unwillingness to link the safety problems that occur within the schools with the safety problems involving the same children outside the schools. Stated differently, I submit that we have compartmentalized the problem and, in so doing, we have compartmentalized the solutions.

Let me explain. Obviously, crime involving young people happens in schools, it happens outside of schools. In fact, we can take some solace in the fact that schools are safer than the outside community. Yet by defining the problem using the artificial distinction of in-school versus out-of-school, we are overlooking the important realities of life for a young person. The influences that affect the lives of young people permeate the schoolhouse environment. It is as important to know about -- and do something about -- incidents that occur in the school yard, as in the classroom; incidents that occur between students who are hanging out at the local deli as between students in the lunchroom; incidents that occur in the subway to school as those that occur in the locker room. The life of young people outside the school building is important for operational purposes -- the conflict that starts in the hallways may spill over into the subways and the transit police should be advised accordingly -- but it is also important for strategic purposes.

One of the most powerful concepts being tested in the criminal justice world these days is the notion of problem-solving.[6] As practiced by the most advanced police departments, the problem solving process involves identifying a safety issue facing a community and bringing a broad spectrum of stakeholders to the table to develop strategies for addressing the problem. In the best of circumstances, this process is guided by good data and solid intelligence on the nature of the problem. Simply stated, if the problem of school safety does not include analysis of the lives of young people outside the schoolhouse -- and does not bring to the table the police officers, youth leaders, faith representatives, community representatives, parents and peers who are also trying to intervene in the lives of these young people, then powerful partners in the problem solving process have been kept on the outside, not even looking in because they are unaware of the steps the schools are taking to provide for greater safety.

The metaphor used by Prof. David Kennedy at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard is very simple -- in describing the success of the Boston Gun Project at reducing juvenile gun violence, he says they learned that they had to pull all the levers of influence that might keep young people out of harm's way -- probation officers, police officers, street workers, ministers, whatever it took.[7] Our Panel here in New York City recommended a similar problem-solving approach -- based on a solid, objective, empirical analysis of the school safety problem that included both in-school and out-of-school assessments, and the creation of a broadly representative problem solving group that would do whatever it took to create schools that were true safe havens. But the first step -- and the most difficult -- is to look outside the school system to define the totality of the problem. We found, for example, that one high school in New York City had so many young people on juvenile court probation that this school could support a full time probation officer. But neither the Department of Probation nor the Board of Education thought this way -- they preferred to see young people only in terms of their bureaucratic constructs and as a result lost tremendous opportunities to leverage the authority and guidance of their respective agencies to benefit these young people.

Again, this perspective poses challenges to the research community. Much of the research conducted on school safety is limited to events that occur in schools. The analytical limitations of this definitional construct are enormous. For example, knowing, as we do, that elementary schools reported about 350 crimes per 100,000, and middle schools reported 1,625 crimes per 100,000 students and high schools reported 1,800 crimes per 100,000 does not really help us understand the reality of crime and safety from the perspectives of those young people.[8] Are they, if their in school and out of school lives are compared, feeling safer as they get older? Or more endangered? Without data on their non-school experiences, we cannot know. Similarly, any trends we observe in the levels of school incidents must be understood against the backdrop of youth experiences overall. If, for example, we find that school violence has not declined at the same rate as youth violence overall, then we will ask more penetrating analytical questions about why the school environment is resistant to the positive developments among young people overall.

So, the second point I hope to leave with you is that the school safety problem cannot be solved if it is limited to the school building -- it is both intellectually dishonest and operationally short-sighted to create these artificial boundaries.

The final issue I would like to address is the need to define the proper role of the schools in providing for their own safety. Safety should not be relegated, in my view, to the school safety personnel -- or to the metal detectors -- or to the guidance counselors. Securing a safe community is the business of every member of that community, including principals, teachers, administrators, parents and students.

Last year, the National Institute of Justice published a report by the University of Maryland that reviewed the existing research literature to answer an important question posed by Congress -- What works to prevent crime? And, as important, what doesn't work? One of the chapters of that report, written by Prof. Denise Gottfredson, focused on research on crime prevention in the educational setting.[9 In reading this chapter, I was struck by her findings. Of the very few "programs" that had been found to work to reduce violence, delinquency and disorder in school, some of them had nothing to do directly with prevention. For example, "correlational evidence suggest that the way schools are run predicts the level of disorder they experience. Schools in which the administration and faculty communicate and work together to plan for change and solve problems have higher teacher morale and less disorder. These schools can presumably absorb change. Schools in which students notice clear school rules, reward structures, and unambiguous sanctions also experience less disorder."10]

These findings suggest that one of the most important tasks in producing safe schools is to create well-managed schools, with fair procedures and clearly articulated norms and expectations, and with involvement of all members of the school community. These findings stand in sharp contrast to other findings in this chapter -- for example, the statement that the D.A.R.E. program has not been found to reduce drug abuse and that Law Related Education programs has not been shown to reduce delinquency.[11] In my view, these findings underscore a common sense insight -- we cannot expect to change the behavior of young people by merely offering them a course. We need to model good behavior, provide them a fair and firm environment, clearly articulate our expectations and impose consequences for failure to meet those expectations, and involve them in producing the safety of their community.

This latter is point is underscored in a report being released today by the National Institute of Justice.[12] The police department and the board of education in Charlotte-Mecklenburg North Carolina tested an innovative approach to school safety, very similar to the one recommended by our Panel here in New York City five years ago. This approach brought together students,teachers, administrators, and the police to focus on safety problems.. With guidance from the police department, the students in one of the city's high schools were trained in the problem-solving approach to school safety and were challenged to make their schools safer. The results,according to a rigorous evaluation conducted by the Police Executive Research Forum, were very impressive.13] The number of students involved in fights dropped by half. The number of police calls to the school dropped in half. The percentage of teachers who said they spent most of their time dealing with disruptive students dropped in half. And the entire school environment changed -- at the beginning of the school year, 45% of the students reported some degree of fear at school; at the end of the year, three quarters said they were almost never afraid.

This report demonstrates that students play a critical role in the problem solving process with school officials, police, community leaders, and peers. I suggest that these findings can serve as a theme for your conference today: providing for safe schools is everybody's business.

So we have reasons to be hopeful. The renewed focus on school safety issues is welcome news. President Clinton's call for a White House Conference on School Safety to be held on October 15 provides an opportunity for national leadership and new energy in attacking this problem. The new emphasis on the importance of research and results can only be healthy. Congress recently asked the administrators of the DARE program to meet with researchers to find a way to revamp that program in light of research findings on effectiveness of other approaches. The Department of Education recently announced that it will only fund programs under the Safe and Drug Free Schools initiative that have a research base of proven effectiveness. In this year's appropriation bill, the Senate has earmarked 210 million dollars for a Safe schools Initiative, most of which will be devoted, to programs that increase community policing in and around. These initiatives show that the federal government is eager to work with localities to build safer schools.

With these opportunities at the federal level, matched by the level of dedication and innovation we are seeing at the local level, we have every reason to be hopeful. I urge you to be bold as you begin your conference. Be willing to bring researchers into your discussions and invite them to be part of your strategic team. Be insistent that the problems of safety be defined from the perspectives of young people, teachers and administrators, rather than defined in terms of buildings. Be insistent that the most important contribution that educators can make to providing safe schools is to provide good schools and resist every effort to put the safety problem off into a corner. We all have a role to play -- and we owe nothing less to our children.

Thank you very much.


  1. Lynch, G.L., Schall, E., Travis, J. "Rethinking School Safety: The Report of the Chancellor's Advisory Panel on School Safety." March 1993.

  2. Costikyan, Edward N., Betanzos, Amalia V., Carberry, Charles, et al. "Report of the Mayor's Investigatory Commission on School Safety." January 4, 1996.

  3. Wooten, Priscilla, et al. "Briefing Paper of the Infrastructure/Human Services Division." New York City Board of Education, Div. of School Safety. Appendix A: Two Year Comparison of All Serious Incidents, 1995-1996; 1996-1997.

  4. Wilson, J.Q., and Kelling, G.L. "Broken Windows." The Atlantic Monthly. March 1982.

  5. Sherman, Lawrence W., Patrick R. Gartin, and Michael E. Buerger. 1989 "Hot spots of predatory crime: Routine activities and the criminology of place." Criminology. 27:27-55.

  6. Goldstein, Herman. Problem-Oriented Policing. McGraw-Hill 1990.

  7. Kennedy, David. "Pulling Levers: Getting Deterrence Right," National Institute of Justice. Journal # 236 (July 1998).

  8. National Center for Education Statistics, "Violence and Discipline Problems in U.S. Public Schools: 1996-97," Statistical Analysis Report (March 1998) p 9.

  9. Sherman, L., et al., "Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising," OJP Research Report (February 1997) p 5-14.

  10. Sherman, L., et al., "Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising," OJP Research Report (February 1997) p 5-35.

  11. Sherman, L., et al., "Preventing Crime: What Works, What Doesn't, What's Promising,"OJP Research Report (February 1997) p 5-41.

  12. Kenney, Dennis, "Crime in the Schools: A Problem-Solving Approach," National Institute of Justice Research Preview (August 1998).

  13. Kenney, D.J., and Watson, S. "Crime in the Schools: Reducing Fear and Disorder with Student Problem Solving." Police Executive Research Forum, 1998.