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Move to Boost Security Has Pitfalls

Safety: Experts urge against knee-jerk responses such as metal detectors, and suggest a multifaceted approach that stresses communication.


When Gov. Gray Davis' wife, Sharon, met with Santana High School students Tuesday, she asked them what would make them feel safer.

"Metal detectors," sophomore Ty Wilson replied.

But experts say schools should not be turned into fortresses because of the relatively rare--if devastating--shootings by troubled youngsters who fire on classmates and teachers, as happened Monday at the San Diego County high school.

"Unfortunately, there's that knee-jerk reaction. . . . People want the instant fix," said Jean Scott, a consultant on school safety with the California Department of Education. "When cooler heads prevail, people realize that the same rules don't work for all schools."

Tighter school security can make students feel even more alienated, psychologists say. It is far better, most agree, to teach the behaviors needed to get along with others.

Indeed, the superintendent and the school board president of the Grossmont Union High School District, of which Santana High is a part, said Tuesday that despite the tragedy, in which two students died and 13 other people were wounded, they do not believe airport-type metal detectors are the answer.

"The idea of metal detectors sounds good in theory," said Dan McGeorge, the school board president. "In practice, on a school of 50 acres . . . metal detectors might give you a false sense of security. The key here is for students and parents to be aware and come forward and talk about threats. Don't take it as a joke. Don't sweep it under the carpet."

McGeorge added that he will continue to work to improve communications between students and teachers. He stressed that "this was an aberration. We have safe schools."

Supt. Granger B. Ward agreed. "This is a good district with good kids," he said. "I think it [installation of detectors] sends the wrong message."

Visible security measures have become a fact of life on many urban campuses. In the Los Angeles Unified School District, all secondary campuses are allotted three $99 hand-held metal-detecting "wands." The district requires at least one random daily check of students for weapons.

At Dorsey High School in the Crenshaw district, students in an algebra class chatted Tuesday about the Santee shootings. They generally agreed that the incident did not make them feel more anxious about coming to school. They also did not see the need for more measures than those already being taken: officers on campus, random scanning and a hall monitor who signs in visitors.

Many pointed out that walking to and from school is more dangerous in their neighborhood, nicknamed "the jungle." Their surroundings stand in stark contrast to Santana High's suburban environment.

"I know half of these kids have been shot at or have witnessed drive-bys," said Chanel Ricketts, 14, a ninth-grader at Dorsey. "They know what to do when they hear gunfire."

Many of the recent school shootings have occurred in suburban or more isolated school districts--a phenomenon that has not been fully explained.

In response to Monday's shooting, Los Angeles Unified took no special security measures Tuesday but sent a message to principals with tips on how to respond to students who make threats.

"For us the focus has been on conflict resolution, dispute resolution and teaching tolerance," said district spokeswoman Hilda Ramirez. "Any time a child makes a threat, that is an indication to us that that child is in trouble and needs help. We are available and have professionals who can intervene."

All high schools and most middle schools in the district have district police officers on campus. Next fall the district will institute a mandatory 20-week course for ninth-graders teaching interpersonal skills for the campus, the home and the workplace. The Los Angeles school board approved that plan last year.

Such preventive measures are highly regarded by school violence researchers, said Russ Skiba, an associate professor at Indiana University's School of Education.

"Schools that put in place school-wide prevention programs to stop bullying and harassment improve the school climate and reduce vandalism," Skiba said. "If I were to invest in school safety, I'd do prevention and early identification [of troubled kids]."

The California Department of Education advises districts that they should embrace multifaceted programs. Schools can apply for state funds to pay for mental health services, diversity programs, "character education" and family counseling, said Doug Stone, a department spokesman.

It's clear, however, that taking all the proper precautions cannot always shield a school from violence. Santana High, a sprawling campus of nearly 2,000 students, had a detailed "safe schools plan," as required by law, with a well-trained crisis team.

From what the state knows now, Stone said, "Santana did a pretty good job in terms of having a safe and secure campus and having the right intervention and prevention strategies.

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