Security Suffers Budget Nightmare

But that doesn't mean schools have to give up on keeping children safe

The state of school security doesn’t seem to appear all that promising. Administrators have been forced to cut security staff and programs, and search for an alternative means to maintain levels of safety and security.

This strategy for security is disheartening because budget cuts typically have translated into widespread layoffs, meaning school resource officers or intervention and prevention specialists -- if not the entire security department -- are too often eliminated.

Indianapolis Public School security officials are part of the district’s private police force, which was hit hard when the district had to trim nearly $27 million from its budget. The schools serve 34,000 students and had a police force of 87 officers last year. The district cut nearly 20 percent of its security staff.

IPS Police Chief Steven Garner hopes they can recover in the future. In the meantime, social workers, administrators, teachers and almost everyone else have been left with the task of making the schools safe. Garner also said

he is now more dependent upon local law enforcement.

It seems a perfect storm is on the horizon.

It is not always about cuts in security staff. The Center for School Preparedness, a department within the Office of Safe and Drug-free Schools in the Department of Education, surveyed security professionals and other school officials. A respondent from a California district reported that turning off the district’s outside lighting in the evenings to reduce electricity costs actually brought about an increase in vandalism and burglary.

One issue that is germane to school safety and security is resolving gang activity in many urban, suburban and rural school districts.

This priority concern is critical for law enforcement and other youth-service professionals.

Gangs share a common collective identity and are frequently and deliberately involved in illegal activities. The focus by school and law enforcement officials should be on behavior -- misconduct or criminal -- associated with gang behavior in schools.

Unfortunately, gangs may be part of the fabric of the school. School and law enforcement officials must look at gang activity not as one-on-one isolated incidents, but as situations that can escalate so quickly that a lunchroom fight between gang members may become a drive-by shooting after school is dismissed for the day.

School security officials must be aware that individual actions of school policy violations are interrelated and part of a broader pattern of gang-related misconduct and violence.

While gang violence seemed to hit a peak in the mid-1990s, and maybe even decline in the late-1990s, there are exceptions, especially lately as bullying and high-profile school gun security violence are making the headline news with renewed frequency.

Schools have never been void of drug activity, but lately schools are seeing an increase in designer drug use.

All these incidents have an immediate effect on school security. There is no quick fix for security.

Crime and discipline data suggest that 90 percent of the security problems come from 10 percent of the student population and non-students. A district cannot throw money at a security problem and hope that will fix it, thereby making the problem go away.

A school security plan must be seamless and totally integrated into the daily routine of all school staff. It should not be viewed as a separate measure, but rather so much part of the school experience that security is everyone’s job. School safety and security must be part of the education culture.

While it is unfortunate that school districts and schools are cutting security staff, they likely have all the authority in place in their own education code and policy manuals to make the campus safe.

Executing and applying existing rules should help school officials consistently conform to a safer and more secure school, benefiting the majority of students from a reduced number of distractions.

School security depends on the establishment of cooperative relationships and communication networks with parents, law enforcement and many other community and social networks.

Guns, children and school do not belong in the same sentence. Schools must work closely with law enforcement to share information about gang activity, especially when it spills over to the school yard, or when school violence moves beyond the traditional school playground.

Gangs are a community problem and schools, being part of the community, cannot operate without taking notice, hoping that gang alliances will discontinue once a gang member crosses the outside fence.

Tight budgets are no excuse for a failure to be proactive with school security. Educators must be totally committed to security programs and solutions to ensure a complete educational experience for every student. It also would be vital to draw the student into school safety plans through student-leader discussions. Hold students accountable for security on campus, as much as educators and staff are responsible.

Last, but not least, focus on what you can do to improve security, not on what you cannot do. Rethinking what can be done during difficult financial times should be a top priority.

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of Security Today.

About the Author

Ralph C. Jensen is editor-in-chief of Security Today magazine.

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