Suburban Schools' Safety Under Scrutiny

The security spotlight is shining on suburban schools in the wake of two Macomb County incidents -- allegations of a planned Columbine-scale massacre at Chippewa Valley and the stabbing of a student at Romeo High School.

Has violence moved to the suburbs while city schools have grown safer with tighter controls?

Or are suburban schools simply seeing the same problems often associated with urban schools?

Wherever it may occur, each incident of school violence catches the attention of parents who often breathe a small sigh of relief that it wasn't their child's school -- this time.

"Our school sizes are smaller, so I think it's easier for them to control," said Sherry Saoudof Ira Township. "I know our school is safe."

But urban parents say their schools are often unfairly labeled. Crime in Detroit schools makes headlines while crime in suburban schools is hidden, said Carol Summers of Detroit.

"Everybody pays attention to what's going on in Detroit, and you ignore what's going on outside of Detroit in the suburban areas -- because it's going on there," said Summers of the Parent Teacher Association and the Parent Teacher, Student Association.The causes of school violence aren't that different from those outside the schoolyard. Research has shown that violent video games have a direct link with violence in teens, said Glenn Stutzky, a clinical instructor on the faculty of Michigan State University's School of Social Work.

The more time teens spend with these games, the stronger the link, he said.

The key issue is access: It takes a computer, Internet and the ability to buy games. This could point to affluence and possibly a stronger link to suburban kids, Stutzky said.

Research hasn't confirmed a direct link between rap and violence, said Elizabeth Barton, associate director for the Center for Peace and Conflict Studies at Wayne State University. She said the question is whether rap leads to violence or whether teens with violent tendencies gravitate to the music.

Most of all, violence is about relationships, Stutzky said.

"A lot of violence is related around romantic relationships. It's almost like domestic violence," he said.

Children are supposed to be safe in school. And, given the number of children in schools each day, that's generally the case.

But no school is immune from violence, and school violence and crime tend to be underreported, experts said.

Federal efforts to force schools to report violence -- by requiring states to identify persistently unsafe schools -- have done little, those experts say, because states have set such narrow definitions of violence and those definitions vary from to state to state.

"No state wants to create an environment where they will end up labeling a school as being persistently dangerous," said Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm.

No schools in Michigan are labeled as persistently unsafe.

"It's a kiss of death for a school administrator's career and a school's image. If they had to pick between being labeled an academic failure and persistently dangerous, they'd pick academic failure," Trump said.

The result is a false sense of security, he said.

Though the 1999 shootings at Columbine forced many schools to create crisis plans and place more focus on prevention, those plans likely have not been updated in recent years, Trump said.

"There's a competition for time, especially with the enormous pressures being put on administrators to improve test scores," he said.

"School safety has fallen to the back burner, and in some cases off the stove in some districts. But when the crisis happens, we'll all go, 'Gee, how did this happen?' "

The best prevention plan may not be a school plan at all.

"There probably is no stronger violence protection program than that connection between a young person and a trusted adult," Stutzky said.

The Chippewa Valley incident was foiled when a teenager went to her father with her concerns about an e-mail threat from Andrew Osantowski.

A trusted grown-up is "probably the single biggest protection factor for young people today," Stutzky said.

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