Places of Safety And Learning
Virginia Tech tragedy renews focus on making schools . . .

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

You probably feel safest at home and at school. That makes sense; they are two of the safest places you can be. Sometimes, though, the stories in the news make it seem like schools can be dangerous.

When people get shot at a school -- as happened this week at Virginia Tech, a university about four hours from D.C. -- it's big news. That's because shootings at schools, as horrifying as they are, are really rare. These shootings also get a lot of attention because everyone, kids and grown-ups, wants schools to be safe places. Monday, in reaction to the deaths, President Bush said, "Schools should be places of safety, sanctuary and learning."

In fact, they are becoming even more so, experts say.

"The series of school shootings that have occurred . . . over the past decade have really made schools safer, and I think kids can be reassured by that," said Edwin R. Gerler Jr., a professor at North Carolina State University. Gerler teaches people to be counselors and is editor of the Journal of School Violence.

Schools didn't used to have locked doors, IDs for teachers and security procedures to keep track of students. Today many schools also have surveillance cameras, a process for visitors to be identified and even metal detectors.

It's harder to enforce such systems at a sprawling campus such as Virginia Tech, or even at some big high schools. But most elementary and middle schools "are easier to secure," Gerler said.

It's also not unusual for kids to have lockdown drills during class. Students practice what to do if teachers or principals decide there is a threat to the students from someone inside the school.

"The teacher locks the door and closes the shades on the windows, and we go to the back of the classroom where nobody can see us. We can't let anybody in, and we have to be really quiet," said Lucy Rieck, 10, a fifth-grader at Bonnie Brae Elementary School in Fairfax. It's helpful, not scary, she said, because "if a weird person walks into the building with a gun, then we know what to do."

Lucy and her classmates also have been told to tell a parent or teacher if another student talks about doing something harmful at school.

It's hard to understand why anyone would want to shoot people, especially kids. Sometimes another student might be having a hard time and think that fighting or hurting people will fix the problem. This was the case at Colorado's Columbine High School, the site of a shooting in 1999.

Anyone who wants to commit violence is most likely to choose a target that is vulnerable, Gerler said. Gunmen have hit schools in Scotland, China and elsewhere. In a town called Beslan in Russia, a school was targeted by terrorists. You also might remember when snipers shot at strangers in the Washington area in 2002, including a boy at a Maryland school.

What kids need to remember, though, is there are thousands of schools in this country, and at most of them nothing violent will ever happen. So you don't need to be afraid when you go to school, you just need to know what to do if something bad does happen.

-- Margaret Webb Pressler

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