2002-09-26 / Other News

Everyone Must Get Involved To Help Prevent School Violence

By Mary E. Alexander and Jeffrey A. Lichtman

By Mary E. Alexander and Jeffrey A. Lichtman

Three high school girls get into an argument with a classmate one night in a rural New York town. The group of three threatens to attack the other girl in school the following day.

The next morning, the girl who was threatened tells an assistant principal about the threat. He takes no action and sends her to class. In the hall a few minutes later, the three other girls attack her, beating her head with a padlock and slamming her headfirst into a wall.

This violent attack actually happened in 1995 to Crystal Shelby, now 22, who suffered brain injuries from the beating. Seven years later, she has hydrocephalus – water on the brain – and cognitive difficulties.

Could the attack have been prevented? A jury thought so. In a lawsuit against the school district, jurors found the assistant principal’s failure to act when told about the threat showed "reckless disregard" for Crystal’s safety. She won the case and was awarded damages.

The lesson for school districts is simple, according to Terry D. Smith, the Buffalo, New York, lawyer who represented Crystal: "Don’t disregard a student who asks for help."

The U.S. Department of Education (DOE) agrees that effective violence prevention requires school officials to respond immediately to signs that a student is on the verge of a violent attack. Violence in schools often is preceded by warning signs – including detailed threats, possession of weapons, or severe rage – that are apparent to others, according to Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools, a DOE publication.

While schools are responsible for protecting students, "all staff, students, parents, and members of the community must be part of creating a safe school environment," the DOE guide says. Schools should have plans to prevent and respond to violent incidents, and should include the entire school community in developing, implementing, and evaluating them.

The DOE says a key factor in preventing violence is identifying and getting help for students who show early warning signs of being troubled. These signs may include social withdrawal, uncontrolled anger, a history of discipline problems, bullying, intolerance for differences, and drug and alcohol use.

How widespread is school violence? Although the DOE says fatal attacks are rare and students are safer in school than elsewhere, a surprising number of violent crimes occur there. According to federal estimates, 255,000 serious violent crimes were committed in schools against students ages 12 to 18 in 1996. These non-fatal crimes included sexual assault, robbery, and aggravated assault.

The violence that occurs in our neighborhoods and communities has found its way inside the schoolhouse door," the DOE guide says. "School violence reflects a much broader problem, one that can only be addressed when everyone – at school, at home, and in the community – works together."

The National PTA says that parents can help prevent school violence by talking to their children, setting clear rules and limits, and knowing the early warning signs of trouble, among other strategies.

For more detailed suggestions from the PTA, go to the organization’s web site at http://www.pta.org and click on "Parent Involvement." Look for "Violence, Kids, Crisis: 10 Things You Can Do" located in the "Health & Safety" section. The DOE report Early Warning, Timely Response: A Guide to Safe Schools – which also includes tips for parents and students – is available at http://www.ed.gov/offices/OSERS/OSEP/earlywrn.html.

Mary E. Alexander is a founding partner in the San Francisco law firm of Mary Alexander and Associates, P.C.

Jeffrey A. Lichtman is a partner in the law firm of Trolman, Glaser and Lichtman, P.C.

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