A 15-year-old girl is raped at Higley High School. A boy is stabbed with a steak knife during recess at Florence K-8 School. At least 11 girls fall victim to sexual assault and public indecency at Scottsdale’s Desert Arroyo Middle School in the Cave Creek district.
Safety is a top concern this time of year as parents start searching for the right school for their children to attend next fall.
But rather than being horrified by recent headlines, moms and dads can arm themselves with public records and their own investigative tools to fi nd out what’s really happening inside school hallways.
They can’t always depend on school officials to tell the whole story when it comes to school violence, said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services.
“School officials are often so worried about their public image,” he said. “It’s kind of ironic. By their silence, many actually create the negative public image that they are so desperately trying to avoid.”
Trump says parents should demand to know the general nature of any violent episodes that have occurred recently at a school, as well as what officials are doing to prevent them from happening again.
If school officials remain mum, parents can always ask the police.
“The police department is able to release more information about the incidents than schools are,” said Kathy Bareiss, spokeswoman for the Mesa Unified School District, explaining that police are not subject to the same privacy laws that prevent schools from speaking about offenders and disciplinary actions taken.
Under Arizona law, any citizen can file a public records request to ask for police reports and other investigation documents related to any police action at a school.
Simply write that, according to the provisions of the Arizona Public Records Law, you want to a inspect a record. List the date, location and any other specific information you can provide regarding the incident — and the police department should provide you with the police report which will often have names of witnesses, witness accounts and other detailed information.
And if parents are not sure if a violent event has occurred at a school they are considering, they can do some investigations.
If the school has a police resource officer, parents can ask him or her how often there are fights or other problems. You can also call the police department’s public information officer and ask how many calls for service were made to the school during the past few months.
Parents should also take a tour of any schools they are considering to assess their safety, said William Lassiter, manager of North Carolina’s Center for the Prevention of School Violence.
“We have three things we tell them to look for — place, people and purpose,” Lassiter said. “For place, we’re talking about the physical environment of the school. Does it look safe? Is the lighting good in the parking lot? And in the hallways?”
Nationwide research has shown, he said, that schools with poor physical conditions also have a higher incidence of violence — so clean, wellstocked bathrooms, for example, can signify something much more important.
Trump suggested asking the principal how safety efforts are part of the day-to-day school culture.
“It’s about more than having a crisis team and procedures on paper,” he said. “It’s a heightened sense of awareness, and having students involved. ... It’s making sure safety is in the forefront of the minds of school administrators, not just hollow words written in a plan that sits on the shelves, collecting dust.”
HOW SAFE IS YOUR SCHOOL?
• Each June, schools submit Safe and Drug-Free Schools reports to the Arizona Department of Education. The report is available from your school.
• If the school has a School Resource Officer, call him or her at the school and ask what the situation is.
• If your child will be walking to school, check out the route he or she will be walking. Is it safe?
• Ask what types of background checks are done on a school’s faculty and staff, as well as on contracted employees, such as custodians.
• Ask to see a copy of the school’s official safety plan.
CHECK OUT THE CAMPUS
Tour the campus with an eye toward the “Three P’s” — place, people and purpose.
Place: How does the campus look? Is the parking lot well lit? The hallways? Is the bathroom kept up? Are the doors locked, and is there limited access to the campus? Do staff and visitors require identification badges?
People: How does the school involve families? If the school did a school climate test recently, ask to see the results.
Purpose: High academics often go hand-in-hand with safe campuses, and vice-versa.
You can view School report cards on: www.ade.az.gov/srcs/find_school.asp?rdoYear=2007.
• State report cards also list how many times law enforcement was called to the school in the past year. However, schools vary in how they report the calls, so it should not be the only tool used in evaluating school safety.
Find some other tips at www.schoolsecurity.org/faq/parents.html