Expert: Crime going underreported at U.S. schools

According to data released last month by the U.S. Department of Education, violent crime at public schools across the nation is declining. The data, which was published in a story by the Associated Press, showed that violent deaths decreased to 33 in the 2009-2010 school year, five fewer than were reported in the previous year. In addition, thefts and nonfatal violent crimes also saw a sharp drop between 2008 and 2010.

Despite these findings, however, shootings and other violent crimes at schools have dominated headlines recently. Last week, a 17-year-old boy allegedly walked into the cafeteria of an Ohio high school and opened fire with a .22-caliber pistol on a group of students, killing three and wounding two others. In Chicago last week, a teen allegedly stabbed a fellow student to death and wounded another in an attack at an alternative high school.

Though the Education Department's statistics may paint a brighter picture about the state of crime at U.S. schools, Paul Timm, PSP and president of Chicago-based school security consulting firm RETA Security, feels that they may not be completely accurate.

"I not only feel there is an underreporting of crime, I know for sure there is an underreporting of crime and there are reasons for that," Timm said. "First of all, there is no universal Clery Act requirement like there is for higher education. And, without that, schools are able to deal with things at the district level or district and local law enforcement level that never will make it to the general public."

From a public relations standpoint, Timm said that schools don't want to be seen as an unsafe environment for students and that he regularly deals with schools that are worried about criminal and other negative incidents being brought out into the public eye.

"Who wants to say there was a suicide in the building or an attempted suicide in the building, or a weapons incident, or a terrible fight, or bullying issues?" Timm asked. "Occasionally, some of those things are going to make it to the local community and maybe even beyond that. But in many of those cases, if it's not an extreme tragedy, people will yawn just because we live in a day of great sensationalism."

The proliferation of social media and cyber bullying has also resulted in increased stress for students, which could potentially lead to more violence in schools.

"Now if I'm a kid, I'm getting texts, I'm going on Facebook where people are either putting innuendo or suggestive type things. I think the stress is no doubt as high as it has ever been and I don't think there is a person in the world who could deny that," Timm explained. "Will the fruit of that stress manifest itself in terms of shootings, suicides, weapons incidents and fighting? It has to. I don't want to say that everybody should look out because the sky is falling, but stress no matter what it is will manifest itself in poor health and in any number of other ways. I've got four kids of my own, one is in eighth grade, two are in high school and one is in college. I see firsthand the stress that social media and just today's school culture puts on kids every day.

While school shootings and other types of violence will never be eliminated, Timm said that there are steps that schools can take to reduce their risks. One of the best ways Timm said they can do this is by taking a "cooperative and holistic" approach to security, which doesn't include reactively running out and purchasing the latest and greatest surveillance equipment and metal detectors.

"I could get all the equipment in the world that I wanted to, but all of the value of my systems is dependent upon a foundation of training and policies," Timm explained. "For example, you can throw in a camera system and kind of feel like the window dressing is in place and I feel safe now, but I go into schools all the time where I'm the one giving the person who has access to the camera system a tutorial on how to use features. If we don't have proper training and there are not the proper documented practices and policies to use this equipment, we're not going to get the kind of value we were hoping for."

While he doesn't expect to see a run on security technology attributed to the aforementioned school shooting in Ohio akin to the aftermath of Columbine, Timm believes there will be some reactionary equipment purchases made followed by an increase in security personnel. While he says there's not a problem with having both of these things, he said that they need to be part of that holistic approach, which includes also focusing on access control and communications.

"What they should be doing is focusing on access control, which takes into account everything from student monitoring to visitor management and the kinds of locks they have on doors," he said. "Access control is one of the primary areas and the other primary area is communications. The bottom line is you can get cameras and metal detectors, but if your P.E. people are not carrying two-way radios with them when they are taking students outside the building for physical education, the barn door is still wide open. We have to have functioning PA systems, intercom call buttons that work, telephones that are labels with emergency dialing instructions, and two-way radios that are carried around for real by administrators and people that monitor student movement."

In addition to this, Timm said that schools need to create a collaborative effort with a broad base of internal and external stakeholders (teachers, parents, custodial workers, administrators, law enforcement, etc.) to make the school a safe environment for students.

"The first law of loss prevention states that effective loss prevention is always preceded by extensive losses. That's why your neighbor doesn't get a burglar alarm system until after their house has been burglarized or why we don't get a Department of Homeland Security until after 9/11," Timm said. "I would just say this for schools. We need to break that first law of loss prevention. We need to sit down collaboratively and we need to look at our entire security program holistically and move forward without events and incidents dictating what we do."

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