On safe ground

School Safety and Security: Lessons in Danger
OECD Observer

On 21 October, 1966, a slag heap in south Wales slid down a mountain and engulfed the village school, killing 144 people, 116 of them children. The 1995 terrorist bombing outside a school near Lyon, France, wounded three children and 11 adults. Fourteen students died in the 1999 gun and bomb assault at Columbine High School in Colorado, and an earthquake in southern Italy in 2002 destroyed a schoolhouse, killing 26 children.

Schools are generally safe places, but terrible events like these, however unlikely, have made many parents, already uneasy about theft, bullying and violence, even more nervous. There are more reassuring stories; for instance, from 9/11, when 9,000 kids from several schools in the vicinity of the burning buildings were evacuated to safety. But how can your local school deal with such events?

Prepare for the worst, is the advice from School Safety and Security: Lessons in Danger. It could mean calling not only on law officers to help make schools safer, but also architects, psychologists, security experts and government authorities. Lessons in Danger examines several different approaches to create a secure learning environment, looking at risk management, crisis planning, building safer infrastructure, and of course, education.

For instance, beyond the usual installing of fences and practising fire drills, children today are being frisked at the school door for possession of knives, firearms or spray paint. Schools are trying out high-tech tools, such as access-control systems to prevent intruders from entering school property, closed-circuit television to monitor inside and outside buildings, and biometric sensors to identify individuals, in order to control access to sensitive areas. Going a step further, one school in the US recently announced that it would implement “smart” cameras that can recognise who does and doesn't belong in the building, and alert staff.

While technology can help, School Safety and Security: Lessons in Danger stresses the need to also simply improve human resources, training not only school teachers and administrators, but taking advantage of the potentially helpful roles of the non-teaching staff, like playground supervisors, janitors, cooks and school nurses. Needs, too, should be taken into account. For instance, ask the kids what they consider to be a safe school. In the UK, a survey of 15,000 pupils produced the Children's Manifesto, asking for such safeguards as swipe cards for the school gates, anti-bullying alarms, first-aid classes and “someone to talk to about our problems.”

ISBN 9264-017399.

©OECD Observer No 246/247, December 2004-January 2005

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