Guest column/ Sudbury Town Crier
Bill Schechter, Teacher Emeritus
In the shadow of the tragedy of January 19, much has been written or said about school safety in relation to the “culture” of Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School, and whether or not changes are needed. I am not writing this piece as a long-time faculty member at the school and parent of an L-S graduate, but as a teacher who believes that historical perspective and facts are important.
According to Justice Dept. figures, murders at schools are extremely rare, accounting for only one-half of one percent of the young people (5 to 19 years old) who lose their lives to violence. Moreover, trend lines show that serious school violence of all kinds has declined since 1994. Current federal statistics about school violence and killings can be found on the Internet. (These figures may be slightly inflated in the sense that “school fatalities” also include students who are slain while traveling to or from school.)
According to several Internet sources, there have been 39 incidents of middle school and high school killings in the United States since 1996, some of them involving multiple fatalities. Of these 39 incidents, only 3 can be attributed to intruders, all of whom were heavily armed. Of the 36 “non-intruder” incidents in which students were the killers, 4 incidents took place in school parking lots or outside on school grounds. In 2 of these 4 incidents, students fired guns from hiding places in nearby woods.
This is the anatomy of school killings in the United States. The earliest and most horrific example of extreme school violence in the U.S. took place in Bath Township, Michigan, in 1927, when 45 students and teachers were killed after a member of the school committee blew up the wing of a new school because of his unhappiness with rising property taxes.
What role does school culture play in these tragedies? Lincoln-Sudbury has been an innovative school in many respects since its founding in 1954 (Its “Philosophy Statements” can all be found online at the school web site.) Students are accorded more freedom than at most public schools, a fact of L-S life highly valued by alumni, according to two professionally conducted surveys. In contrast, the overwhelming majority of public schools in this country are more conventional, with more restrictive cultures. Yet it is these more conventional schools–without student free time, or open campus and early arrival options, etc– that have been the sites of most serious school violence in the past fifteen years.
Last month, I accompanied five faculty and two students to the new Whitman-Hanson Regional High School, in Whitman, Mass., which possesses what has been described as a “state-of-the art” security system. The school and its outside grounds are blanketed with cameras with zoom capacities. (Students are more restricted than at L-S, have no free periods, can only visit the library once a week, and have a closed campus.)
Despite the built-in technology, I did not see a single security feature at Whitman-Hanson that would have prevented the tragedy of January 19. There are no cameras in the bathrooms, and cameras are monitored “live” for only a few minutes every day (One of two security aides was recently laid off for financial reasons.) The camera recordings are examined only after an incident occurs, and rarely provide the opportunity for “real time” intervention. Moreover, Whitman-Hanson has no metal detectors. In fact, many school systems that have detectors are now considering removing them because of their ineffectiveness, while others have decided against deploying them because of chronic calibration problems that cause long delays.
A terrible event occurred on January 19, the first murder at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School in its fifty years of existence. Was it a random event? Or was it the result of systemic failure? The discussion about safety at Lincoln-Sudbury Regional High School ought to proceed with calm deliberation. Let’s do only what will really help make L-S a safer place, and only after a careful consideration of the actual facts concerning school violence.
Above all, let’s avoid doing “something, anything” for purely political, expedient reasons. There is a real danger in this. Technological quick-fixes or unnecessary changes in a successful school culture can will only lull us into a false sense of security and divert us from strengthening the most powerful guarantor of school safety: the quality of student and staff relationships.
Sudbury Town Crier, June 2007