Safe Schools


September 2002

Do you worry if your children's school is safe? This is easy to understand in light of recent tragedies like the mass murder at Columbine High School in Colorado. Here is some basic help for parents who want to help make schools safer. It is based on research of lawyers, educators, and public safety professionals.

In general, what does a safe school look like?
A school is safe because of the way it treats its students. It treats all students and parents with respect. The school sets clear and high goals for students, and helps students meet those goals. All members of the school's community share the commitment to safety. This includes students, parents, teachers, administrators, and school staff. It includes maintenance staff, nurses, counselors, cooks, bus staff and playground attendants.

A safe school has clear rules and enforces those rules with an even hand. Studies show students are more likely to obey positive rules ("be on time," "stay sober") than negative rules ("don't be late," "don't drink or do drugs"). A safe school has a positive approach to discipline. When a student behaves acceptably, the school recognizes the student's behavior. When a student does not behave acceptably, a safe school teaches positive behaviors to the student as part of any discipline. When a student starts to show serious unacceptable behavior, a safe school takes steps early to get help.

A safe school has a crisis response plan. It keeps students and teachers safe during a crisis, including plans for emergency medical care. Evacuation procedures are well known and frequently practiced. In a crisis, a safe school keeps parents informed. Finally, it helps teachers and students cope with the aftermath of a crisis, arranging for counseling and other support services.

The school's rules and safety plan should be accessible. They should be made available in alternate formats (Braille or large print, for example) and in other languages the school community speaks, such as Spanish, Lao, or Bosnian. They should be shared in alternate ways with persons who need extra help to understand them.

Should parents in suburban school districts worry about school safety?
Yes. A school is not "safe" because it is in a suburb or rural area. The racial, social or economic makeup of the student body does not guarantee safety. In some cases, a school may need to take steps like having guards, cameras, or metal detectors, but these measures are no guarantee that a school becomes or stays safe.

What does an unsafe school look like?
Most of the time an unsafe school is negative and impersonal. It focuses on negative behaviors, rather than positive behavior and student achievement. Discipline at unsafe schools is often unfair and unequal. These schools use harsh discipline (suspension, expulsion), although many studies show that harsh discipline actually increases unacceptable behavior in schools. An unsafe school ignores bullying and harassment. It has low student and parent involvement. Its staff is uncommitted and has low morale.

What about "zero tolerance" policies?
Congress requires schools to have "zero tolerance" policies for drug and weapons violations in schools. Even after several years, there is no statistical proof that "zero tolerance" policies help make schools safer. Some researchers think "zero tolerance" policies may in fact make schools less safe.

Congress requires all "zero tolerance" policies to give the school superintendent the discretion to depart from the required punishment in certain cases, to be fair. Schools enforce these "zero tolerance" policies and use their discretion in very different ways. These differences may lead to more or less school safety. Some schools have commonsense "zero tolerance" policies. In these schools, all students who commit significant violations of school rules get significant penalties; but these schools are somewhat flexible when it comes to how it will punish the child. This can be part of a "safe schools" plan that works.
On the other hand, some schools take a rigid approach to "zero tolerance" and heavily rely on long-term suspensions and expulsions. This may lead to absurd results. Such a school might expel students for bringing nail clippers (a "weapon") or over-the-counter pain relievers like aspirin ("drugs") to school. Rigid policies can reduce the respect students and parents have for schools. They may make it more likely students will break school rules.

What can I promote safe schools?
You can do many things to help make schools safer. First, you may wish to help your children with their studies. If a child is having problems, seek help. Second, teach children appropriate behavior and use positive, constructive discipline. If you want to learn more about positive parenting techniques, contact a local family service agency or counselor. Third, you should protect children from violence, including violence in the home. Make sure weapons are not available to children. Talk with children about drugs and alcohol and about violence in television shows, movies, and video games.

Talk with your children about school, and take part in school activities as much as you can. Know your children's teachers. Learn school policies, and talk with children about those policies. If you think a school is unsafe or have suggestions to promote school safety, contact school leaders.

Where can parents find more information about safe schools?
Parents with questions about safe schools may contact their local school district. In addition, both the Iowa and United States Departments of Education have information on the topic. You can get a good booklet from the U.S. Department of Education called Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools. It is available on-line at In some cases, parents may wish to talk to a lawyer. If you are not able to afford a lawyer, contact the Iowa Legal Aid regional office serving your county to ask about free legal help.

Last Review and Update: Feb 28, 2003

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