Kids feel safe in Boston public school environment

Kids feel safe in Boston public school environment

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Kids feel safe in Boston public school environment


A Boston high school student stood alone, waiting for a public bus to take him home after school had let out. When he was approached by a group of kids who attempted to assault him, his first instinct was to run.

He did not run to a neighbor's house. He did not bother to look for a police station. He simply ran to the safest place he knew — his school.

He proceeded to bang on the double doors until a custodian reluctantly opened them. But it didn't matter. The kids had already dispersed when the student reached the school grounds.

"He clearly thought it was a safe-haven because he ran back to the building and begged to get in," said John D. Sisco, the chief of school police in Boston.

Sisco said students over the last 10 years have come to view their schools as an escape from the outside world.

"In general, I believe the kids do feel safe," Sisco said. "Kids tell us that it's dangerous in the streets."

In September, a 15-year-old Charlestown High School student was shot in the leg while walking to volunteer at a Boys & Girls Club after school.

Boston Police Captain Bernard O'Rourke said the shooter was standing on the corner of Bunker Hill and Polk Streets, about 150 yards from the school, at about 2 p.m. when school let out.

After the incident, extra police officers were temporarily assigned to cover the school, but they were soon called away to deal with other incidents.

"It would be nice if they would have a police car there at dismissal but it just happened that day that there was no police car there," said Headmaster Michael Fung.

Nathalie Martinez, who has lived in the development behind the school for 10 years, told the Boston Globe right after the incident that "usually it's pretty quiet around here, except when it's during the school year. It's crazy, and it's only the beginning of the school year. What's going to happen in the middle?"

In response to this comment, Fung said of his 1,190 student campus, "it's always quiet if there are no people around."

"Charlestown has the lowest crime rate in Boston," Fung said. "Lower than Beacon Hill."

He said things like the shooting are "unpredictable" and that it was an "isolated case."

"I usually go home real late, at like 8 or 9 [p.m.], and just go there to the bus stop and nothing ever happens.

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I really don't see what [can happen]," Fung said.

Of the 17 high schools that fall under the jurisdiction of the Boston Public Schools, Director of the Brudnick Center on Violence and Conflict Jack Levin said their rate of crime is relatively low compared to the number of students.

"Boston schools are among the safer, in part because Boston is among the safer cities," Levin said.

Of the crimes that are reported, very few are violent incidents, said Mary Ellen Cafferty, the director of operations for Boston Public Schools.

"We have virtually no gun incidents in our schools and when we have an occasional one or two, it's usually possession of a weapon and not use of a weapon," Cafferty said.

Approximately 80,000 students in 140 buildings are part of the Boston Public School system.

The Los Angeles Unified School District holds nearly 800,000 students. Though approximately 30,000 crimes in schools are reported each year, said Keith Moore, a lieutenant for the Los Angeles school police, the crime rate is still relatively low compared to the number of students.

"Our victimization rate for crimes against persons is less than 1 percent and, when you’re talking to 800,000, that’s far safer than any city anywhere that I know of," Moore said.

Moore said he worries more about his students' ways to and from school than their safety during the day.

"If you’re sitting in a classroom doing what you’re supposed to be doing, nothing ever happens to you," Moore said.

The mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo. in 1999 seemed to be the exception to that rule.

On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 13 people and wounded 21 inside of their school building before turning the guns on themselves.

Some of the victims were in the library; some in the cafeteria. They were shot because of the way they looked, what they were wearing and what they believed in.

Still, Levin said that "even during the Columbine era, 1997-1999, schools were still the safest places for youngsters to be."

The "Columbine era" was a period of two years when the rate of incidents of school shootings was higher than it has been in the past 10 years.

In 1999, 7 percent of students grades nine though 12 reported carrying a weapon on school property in the past 30 days, according to a report titled, "Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2001," collected by the National Center for Education Statistics.

In 1993, the same survey reported 12 percent of students carrying a weapon on school property.

Away from school property, 17 percent admitted to carrying a weapon in 1999.

"Crime rate for teenagers rises at about 3 p.m., after the school bell rings," Levin said.

Levin attributes the falling crime rate in Boston to the addition of resources in schools and more after school programs and other places students can go to feel safe.

"The schools in Boston have become much better in terms of providing supervision for our youngsters and that's made a difference," he said.

Cafferty said the collaboration between the school police and the 11 Boston police officers that work in the school buildings has helped to maintain the safety of the students.

"I believe that for a city school department, we have an excellent track record in the Boston Public Schools," Cafferty said. "I mean, do we have incidents? Of course we do. I think it would be fair to say we believe we have an excellent process in place, we have good prevention efforts, we have intervention efforts."

In order to combat school violence, 10 of the 17 Boston public high schools operate metal detectors daily. Levin said, however, that the "law enforcement approach can backfire."

"I think there are very few schools where metal detectors are effective," he said.

Charlestown High School is one of the seven schools that do not employ the use of metal detectors.

"We don't feel we need it," Fung said.

Moore said that because Los Angeles schools tend to be bigger than "East Coast schools," the LA police use hand-held metal detectors, if they use them at all.

Of the nearly 1,200 school buildings in New York City Public Schools, only 77 use metal detectors, said Lieutenant Cynthia Francis of the school safety division of the New York Police Department.

Francis said metal detectors are "an effective deterrent to prevent people from bringing weapons in a building."

Sisco said the use of metal detectors is merely a formality that takes time away from the school day. He said it was not feasible to make entering school like entering the airport.

"Kids are not going to come to school an hour early, we can barely get them to come on time," Sisco said.

Levin said that time is not the only problem with metal detectors.
"They assume that students are stupid. That if they can't carry their weapons through the front door, they won't bring them in," he said.

He said students could find a way to bring weapons through back doors or pass them through a bathroom window to a friend.
Despite the deterrents, however, Sisco said when the money and the manpower are available to employ the use of metal detectors, "they absolutely work."

"The best thing they are is a visible deterrent. You're not going to walk through a metal detector with a gun. You're not going to walk through a metal detector with a knife. You're not going to walk through a metal detector with a metallic weapon," he said.

He said school police officers should not be the ones to operate the metal detectors.

"A person that can arrest you, can handcuff you, can deprive you of your liberty, cannot just conduct an arbitrary search," Sisco said. 'A metal detector is a form of a search."

He said that courts view schools as one of the only places where citizens are allowed to be searched without a warrant, a right given to the principals of the schools to decide.

"Most of the people who have [metal detectors] are people who have sought them out," Cafferty said.

While principals have this right inside of the school building, however, and have the ability to install metal detectors and other precautions, many incidents occur on school buses where there is no adult supervision other than the driver.

In September 2003, a 12-year-old boy from Washington Irving Middle School in Rosindale was charged with stabbing a seventh grader during a morning bus ride.

According to an incident report filed by the driver of the bus, a fight broke out when he opened the door to tell a teacher how many students were on the bus.

Other students on the bus notified the school police that the sixth grader had a knife and a school nurse checked the seventh grader and found that he had been stabbed.

"Students are more willing to turn in their fellow students if they feel there's a legitimate threat being made," Levin said.
He said despite incidents like this, the Boston Public School system is still not dangerous.

Sisco also said that these incidents are no indication of an unsafe school system or an imminent danger to students.

"The reality is that 99.999 percent of incidents usually happen between individuals," Sisco said.

According to "Indicators of School Crime and Safety: 2001," only 5 percent of students nationwide between the ages of 12 and 18 in 1999 feared being attacked in a school environment.

Levin said despite the feelings of safety, incidents do occur. He said, however, unless they include mass casualties, like the Columbine High School shootings, only the people in the particular town or city where they occur know about them.

"I think it's impossible for any school to be completely safe. The students are in the violent-prone age group," Levin said. "[The schools] can't be terribly selective about who gets in and who doesn't."

Still, he said, they are safer for kids than what is outside.
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