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Safety and children: how schools can help.

The safety of America's children and youth can no longer be taken for granted. Drugs, alcohol, AIDS and violence threaten young people daily. The incidence of child abuse and neglect has reached epidemic proportions. The increase in substance abuse, the breakdown of the family, the growing poverty rate and other social issues expose children and youth to myriad risks.

As the problems facing our nation's youth escalate, so does the need for a unified response. Although a sound education is one of the best protections that children can have, the social and physical needs of children and youth have grown so large it is counterproductive to focus solely upon academic needs. This article explores the roles schools can play in providing direction, guidance and support of a broader nature.

Violence in the Schools

Problems of violence and crime are becoming commonplace in American schools. "Over half of all violent crimes against teenagers . . . occur in school buildings, on school property, or on the streets" (National Crime Prevention Council, 1993). According to the U.S. Department of Justice, the estimated number of robbery or violent crime incidents on or near school grounds is 3 million per school year. Increasing numbers of children fear the trip to and from school and avoid specific places at school out of fear of an attack (National Crime Prevention Council, 1993).

The issue of violence in schools is extremely complex and concern over its impact is growing. President Clinton has submitted to Congress the Safe Schools Act of 1993, which would be the first federal program to direct funds to local school districts for the purpose of making schools safer. U.S. Secretary of Education Richard Riley, announcing transmission of this bill, noted that "All our efforts to raise the standard of American education will be to no avail unless we provide children with a safe and disciplined environment that is conducive to learning" (Riley, 1993).

The Department of Education issued a study, Reaching the Goals: Safe, Disciplined and Drug-Free Schools, that stresses the importance of "simultaneous attention to curriculum and instruction, school organization and governance, and relationships inside and outside the school" (U.S. Department of Education, 1993). The study strongly recommends a comprehensive approach involving parents, community and school that addresses the "multiple risk factors [facing students] and seeks to build protection against them," DOE also suggests that an "ethic of caring that guides staff-student relationships" and "teacher involvement beyond the classroom" can be helpful in creating safety in the schools.

Organizations across the U.S. have published excellent materials that offer suggestions and guidelines for preventing violence in the schools, as well as programs that can be incorporated into the curriculum. Numerous programs and national models exist that actively involve young people themselves in the fight against crime. Teens, Crime and the Community (TCC) is one such program. Launched by the National Crime Prevention Council, TCC educates young people about crime and involves them in specific projects to make their schools and communities safer (National Crime Prevention Council, 1993). The program has been implemented in more than 500 schools in 40 states, involving more than 400,000 youths.

TIPS, a dual acronym for Teaching Individuals Positive Solutions, Teaching Individuals Protective Strategies, is a national program designed to teach K-8 students positive conflict resolution and crime prevention strategies, and to promote responsible behavior (Education Information and Resource Center, 1989). The program can be blended easily into the school curriculum and includes teacher training.

School administrators, following the lead of such programs, are training students to recognize and protect themselves from potentially violent situations. They offer courses in conflict resolution and mediation skills. By offering the tools to guard against substance abuse, schools can help prevent many problems that often end violently. Job training and other life skills programs also can help safeguard against violence.

Schools can strengthen their stand against violence by encouraging both students and staff to report such incidents. Parents can become involved by patrolling lunch rooms, lobbies and playgrounds and by joining in meetings. Inviting members of the police department or juvenile justice system to talk to students about crime prevention, as well as its consequences, is an excellent way to involve the community. Students can be encouraged to write letters to the editors of local newspapers, as well as to politicians, documenting the problems of guns and violence in their neighborhoods and schools. These records can be used to help the school assess the problem and devise a plan of action.

Taking the Offensive

Models for protecting children and youth from high-risk behavior involve students in constructive activities in which their actions have a beneficial effect. Schools across the U.S. are developing and expanding their community service programs. By participating in community service, students develop their sense of social values, responsibility and cooperation. At the same time, their self-esteem increases and they learn the benefits of interacting positively with others and with the community.

Schools have many other opportunities to develop projects specifically tailored to help students protect other children, including: 1) cleaning and securing a neighborhood playground, 2) tutoring children in an after school program, 3) working in a hunger program or soup kitchen and 4) refurbishing housing.

Youth as Resources (YAR) is an innovative, student-led community service program administered by the National Crime Prevention Council. Young people are awarded small grants to design and carry out their own projects to meet community needs. "YAR is based on the belief that if young people know they can contribute to solving serious problems in their communities, they will" (National Crime Prevention Council, 1993).

Additions to the Curriculum

Classes or workshops on self-esteem, leadership and peer counseling are all worthwhile curriculum additions. Many young people grow up today without anyone in their lives to provide positive feedback or believe in them. Without this faith and encouragement, young people will often suffer from low self-esteem and a sense of hopelessness. Helping students identify their abilities and interests is one of the best ways to help young people feel confident about, and in charge of, their future.

Youth leadership programs also help students stay on track by offering them the opportunity to experience their potential and capabilities and to develop a sense of pride and self-esteem. As students become aware of their strengths, they begin to base important decisions upon them. Leadership programs can also give students the skills and practice to become advocates for other youth and to act as role models.

Leadership programs also include peer counseling guidance, in which students are trained to listen to other's problems and feelings and to provide the support and encouragement young people need to make constructive choices. Counseling's focus is often on relaying positive messages (e.g., the importance of abstaining from drugs and alcohol, staying in school and avoiding early pregnancy).

Mentoring Programs

Mentoring is an extremely effective way to help students realize their potential and pursue a constructive path. A stable, productive and caring individual can offer much-needed guidance and attention. Positive role models can help children and youth set goals, increase social skills and feel better about themselves and their prospects.

Mentors can be drawn from a variety of sources in the community. The business community is a particularly valuable resource. in recent years, more than 200,000 businesses in the U.S. have established partnerships with high schools, according to the National Association for Partners in Education in Alexandria, Virginia. Alarmed by high dropout and low academic success rates, businesses are investing in schools to insure they have a future work force.

The academic assistance, attention and support that professionals can provide will increase the likelihood that students will resist the lure of the streets. Many youth today lack role models in the workplace. Exposure to the world of work can help make its pursuit more of a reality. Tutoring and mentoring programs can be established on the school or business premises. Members of the business community can hold job fairs or visit schools and talk to students about careers. Many businesses offer students internship positions and summer jobs.

Local colleges are another valuable resource. In addition to providing tutors and mentors, colleges can play a role in making it more viable for young people to attend college. Schools, by asking college admissions representatives to visit and talk to students as early as the 9th grade, present the concept of higher education as a possibility to many students who might not otherwise consider it.

Child Abuse and Neglect

One of the most serious threats to children's safety is child abuse and neglect. According to the National Committee To Prevent Child Abuse, nearly 3 million children were reported abused and neglected in 1993, of whom an estimated 1,299 died (National Committee To Prevent Child Abuse, 1993).

Schools can play an important role in the war against child abuse. The National Committee To Prevent Child Abuse makes several recommendations for educators and schools. They urge school districts to institute a policy on child abuse, requiring the reporting of suspected child abuse in accordance with state laws and mandating inservice training on recognizing and reporting suspected child abuse for all staff members, including bus drivers, cafeteria workers and health aides. They also suggest that schools work with the local Child Protective Service Agency and the local child protection team. (National Committee To Prevent Child Abuse, 1986).

Kids on the Block is a national program that teaches self-protection strategies to 1st- through 8th-graders (Pfannenstiel, Lamson & Yarnel, 1991). The program coordinators produce skits that use puppets to present students with sensitive information and provide children with a safe and non-threatening atmosphere in which to ask questions. Kids on the Block also addresses gang violence and teen pregnancy.

Parent Education

Parent education is a powerful tool in preventing child abuse and neglect. Some schools offer classes to help parents understand their children, employ positive and nonviolent forms of discipline and build self-esteem.

One exemplary program for parent support is the Parents as Teachers Program (PAT). Begun as a model program in 1981, PAT is now available to all parents through schools in every school district in Missouri (Pfannenstiel, Lamson & Yarnel, 1991). While Missouri is the only state in the nation with a statutory mandate to make parent education and family support services available in every school district, PAT has spread to 42 additional states (Harvard Family Research Project, 1992).

PAT is a home/school partnership designed to provide parents of infants and toddlers with support and guidance in their role as their children's first teachers. Parent educators make monthly home visits to teach about child development and share ways to encourage development and learning. The visits focus on learning activities and age-appropriate behavior. Parents are much more likely to abuse their children when they have unrealistic expectations.

This program helps parents recognize what is reasonable behavior from children at different ages, and teaches them effective methods of positive reinforcement and nonviolent discipline. They also learn how to stimulate their children's cognitive development. Other components of the PAT program include group meetings for parents, developmental screenings and referrals to more comprehensive services, when needed.

Latchkey Children

Another grave threat to children's safety is the lack of adequate supervision. The number of children left unattended after school is skyrocketing. Latchkey children constitute approximately one-third of all school children, or 5 million children between the ages of 5 and 13 (Stangler & Kiulahan, 1993). Supervision and guidance for these children is essential to keep children from high-risk activities and channel them in constructive directions. Furthermore, a report issued by the Missouri Child Fatality Review Project revealed that "lack of supervision appears to be a major factor leading to death in reviewed cases. For example, 41 percent of children among reviewed cases were not supervised by adults at the time of injury leading to death" (Children's Aid Society, 1993).

What the Schools Can Do

Schools can help meet the needs of latchkey children in many ways. They can encourage parents and community members to establish block parent programs. The PTA organizes such programs, in which certain houses are identified as safe havens for children who are on their way home from school. A special telephone line, a "warm line," can be established through the school for children left home alone to use when they need the support, guidance or reassurance of an adult or an older student.

After School Programs

Despite the cost, keeping schools open during the hours before and after school would be an effective protection option. Extended hours would provide much-needed safety and supervision, if properly organized. Volunteers could be recruited to offer study help, recreation and sports activities, job counseling and so forth. Partnerships with local organizations can help finance the program and secure volunteers and resources.

Churches and synagogues are often willing to help establish after school programs. They can set up these programs either on their premises or the school's. Volunteers from the congregation help run the programs and offer academic support, friendship and guidance. Congregations can also help by establishing academic scholarship funds, volunteering in the classroom, adopting a school or a class, donating needed items, advocating for breakfast programs in the schools, supporting parents or establishing a phone line for children. Schools can invite members of a local congregation to visit the school in order to assess needs and discuss possible relationships.

Community Schools

The Children's Aid Society has recently established a groundbreaking model program in two schools in the Washington Heights section of New York City--IS 281 and PS 5. In partnership with New York City Public Schools, the city's Community School District 6 and community-based partners extended the school's hours to one hour before classes and until 10:00 p.m. Also, they have actually developed community centers on the schools' premises where a wide range of social services is available to meet the many needs of both parents and children. Services offered include medical, dental, mental health, recreation, supplemental education, youth programs, parent education, family life education and summer camping services.

In July of 1991, the Dinkins administration launched the Beacon Initiative in New York City under which 37 public schools were designated to remain open seven days a week year-round, often as late as midnight. By offering counseling, study help, career guidance, recreation, leadership programs and sports, the beacon schools offer children and young adults safe and constructive alternatives to the streets. Programs are also available to the parents. School as community center can provide much needed support, unity and direction to young people who are facing tremendous temptations. These programs give students and families access to a myriad of resources located in the community and under one roof.

Parent Centers

A community school is a major undertaking. Establishing parent centers, however, is an easier way to meet the broader needs of high-risk children and families. An area of the school could be designated for the dissemination of information and guidance to parents in need. Often, parents need help filling out forms, learning where to take classes in English and following school requirements. Many need to find out how to link their children with the wide range of available community resources. Without guidance, these parents often remain isolated and, therefore, their children do not get the support and attention they may need. Members from a wide range of community organizations could be asked to meet with parents at designated hours. A bulletin board can list services, programs and opportunities for both parents and children. Many schools have already set up lending libraries with books and tapes on a wide range of information pertinent to parents.

Parent Involvement

Encouraging parents to become involved in their children's school and with their children's education benefits everyone. Family-school partnerships are becoming increasingly popular. Schools are beginning to enlist parental support to address the broad range of issues and problems that arise in the school. PTA meetings are one means of expanding parental engagement. The Center on Families, Communities and Schools and Children's Learning is doing groundbreaking work in this area and offers the curriculum and materials to facilitate schools' developing comprehensive parent involvement programs.


While the dangers facing children and youth can seem overwhelming, schools' responsiveness to their ever-growing needs is critical. We can make a tremendous difference for the future if we recognize the hazards and temptations facing young people today and step in to provide preventive support and guidance. It is an investment we cannot afford not to make.


Children's Aid Society. (1993). Building a community school, a revolutionary design in public education. New York: Author.

Educational Information and Resource Center. (1989). Teaching individuals positive solutions, teaching individuals protective strategies. Sewell, NJ: Author.

Harvard Family Research Project. (1992). Pioneering states: Innovative family support and education programs (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Author.

National Committee To Prevent Child Abuse. (1984). Current trends in child abuse reporting and fatalities: The results of the 1993 annual 50 states survey. Chicago: Karen McCurdy & Deborah Daro.

National Committee To Prevent Child Abuse. (1986). Educators, schools and child abuse. Chicago: Diane B. Broadhurst.

National Crime Prevention Council. (1992a). Teens, crime and the community. Washington, DC: Author.

National Crime Prevention Council. (1992b). Youth as resources. Washington, DC: Author.

National Crime Prevention Council. (1993). Sending kids into a safer world. What's happening to young people in today's world: A statistical portrait. Washington, DC: Author.

National PTA. (1992). Kids with keys . . . Parents with jobs: Who's in charge? Chicago: Author.

Pfannenstiel, J., Lamson, T., & Yarnel, V. (1991). Second wave study of the parents as teachers program. St. Louis, MO: Parents as Teachers National Center.

Riley, R. (1993). June 17, 1993 press release. Washington, DC: Office of United States Secretary of Education.

Stangler, G., & Kiulahan, C. (1993). Missouri children fatality review project, interim progress report. Jefferson City, MO: Missouri Child Fatality Review Project.

U.S. Department of Education (1993). Reaching the goals: Safe, disciplined and drug free schools. Washington, DC: The Goal 6 Work Group.

Amy Hatkoff is co-author of How To Save the Children and producer of the public television award-winning documentary, Neglect Not the Children. She is Executive Director of the Hadar Foundation and teaches parenting workshops to homeless mothers and teen fathers in New York City.
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Title Annotation:Creating Safer Environments for Children in the Home, School and Community
Author:Hatkoff, Amy
Publication:Childhood Education
Date:Jan 1, 1994
Previous Article:Conflict resolution and peer mediation: pathways to safer schools.
Next Article:Peer conflicts in the classroom: drawing implications from research.

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