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    We can do more to make students feel safe

    By DIANE STEINLE

    © St. Petersburg Times, published March 18, 2001


    When I was a 10th-grader, a student with a gun terrorized my high school.

    The year was 1967.

    I'm giving the year to demonstrate that the past wasn't necessarily the way people like to remember it. Sometimes they see the past through a rose-colored haze. They forget important things -- like that even 30 years ago, kids occasionally took weapons to school and used them.

    I was in the cafeteria that day when a boy who had sneaked off campus to sniff glue came back to the school, whacked-out and firing random shots from a pistol in a classroom wing. Those of us eating lunch nearby in the noisy cafeteria were blissfully unaware that our lives were in danger until a swarm of police officers arrived to escort us to classrooms. We spent hours behind locked classroom doors until police subdued the student.

    When I look back, that event seems merely a warmup for the two years that followed. The schools in my North Carolina hometown were desegregated in 1968 by opening a new high school for both whites and blacks. From the first day, there were fights, threats, walkouts, even assaults on teachers. Police cars sometimes lined the circular drive in front of the school and uniformed officers patrolled the halls.

    I learned many things from my high school experience, including that school cannot always be a safe place -- in fact, that it mirrors the community around it. Whatever problems exist outside the school's walls will exist inside, sometimes in spades.

    So it comes as no surprise to me that more students seem to be carrying weapons and sometimes using them in the belief that violence will solve their problems. What happens on the outside happens on the inside.

    There is no quick fix, and nothing will prevent violence entirely in our schools. But with a lot of Band-Aids, you can cover a pretty big wound. More counselors, smaller class sizes, better staff training, special help for students who get no support at home, improved enforcement of gun laws, providing methods for students to anonymously report overheard threats of violence -- all are ways that we can make schools safer and more positive environments for children.

    There is another way that may be one of the most important, but it doesn't get a lot of attention. I believe we must find ways to make the school environment less cruel for students.

    For too many students, the school day is an emotional gantlet because they are relentlessly harassed by other students. There are signs it was like that for Andy Williams, the small 15-year-old accused of shooting up his California high school two weeks ago, killing two classmates and wounding 13. A number of previous school shooters also were said to have been targets of harassment by classmates.

    "Bosh!" some people will say. Kids have always picked on each other. It is no worse now than when they were in school.

    I disagree. This goes way beyond mere teasing.

    Right here in Pinellas County, there are schools where students avoid using the bathroom all day because the restrooms are "ruled" by groups that intimidate other students who try to enter. Did that happen when you were in school?

    There are students who go home with bruises because every day -- every day -- at a certain point in a certain hallway they are hit or shoved by their harassers.

    There are school cafeterias where certain students who have the power to intimidate prowl the room, freely grazing from other students' lunch trays or stealing whole lunches, confident they will suffer no retribution and unconcerned that the students they pick on will go hungry.

    And that is just the tip of the iceberg. Heaven help the child who is shy, overweight or has some visible disability that will make him or her a more obvious target.

    In a society that seems so sensitive to harassment in the workplace, why aren't we doing more to protect our children at school? And how do students get away with such meanness?

    Sometimes there is no adult nearby to see it. Teachers don't eat in the lunchroom with students anymore. Many schools no longer require teachers to stand outside their classroom doors during class changes, though all those extra eyes and ears would prevent much of the harassment that occurs in hallways. Nobody wants to be a bathroom monitor. And administrators are often in their offices dealing with discipline problems.

    Sometimes the harassment goes on because the victims don't tell. They don't talk about it at home because they don't want to be embarrassed by their parents charging up to the school. They don't tell teachers or administrators because they think their harasser will find out and seek revenge. Sometimes they feel they have no one to tell, no one who cares.

    They try to endure it silently. Some succeed. Some become chronic truants or show up in the school clinic at the same time every day. Some become moody or distance themselves from other students. And some explode. They show up at school with weapons, determined to end their torment.

    Schools have so many challenges today that it is hard to suggest that they should do more. But I believe that every school should have a plan for stopping harassment of students by students. Schools simply can't afford to look the other way on this.

    Every parent who knows their child is being harassed should go to the school and insist that the principal stop it in such a way that the victim will not be subject to retribution.

    And students, who are doing a wonderful job nationwide of reporting threats of violence or the presence of weapons at school, must be given one more reporting duty: If they know a student is being regularly and maliciously taunted by other students, they should be instructed to tell an adult at school. Doing so could defuse a situation that might eventually lead to violence.

    Yes, it is another Band-Aid. But there is nothing wrong with trying to make our schools kinder, gentler places. Maybe it will rub off on the world outside.

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