Safe School Zones

All schools are impacted by the criminal activity in the neighborhoods in which they are located. Fortunately, many schools are located in low-crime areas, but a large number are located in moderate- to high-crime areas. The level of criminal activity in the community around a school has a direct, and often significant, impact on the level of safety in the school. Unfortunately, many incidents around the nation indicate that schools must now be concerned about school safety zone issues.

Students who must walk through high-crime areas to get to and from school each day are more likely to be truant, carry weapons to school, and join a youth gang because of the increased level of fear of victimization while they pass through these areas. This aspect alone makes incidents in these zones relevant to the level of safety in our schools.

Students, parents and school staff feel little consolation that the fatal shooting of a student took place off campus if the incident occurred across the street from the school. To them, students and staff do not seem any safer than if the crime took place in the school gymnasium.

This is a critical area where a community-based school/law enforcement partnership can effectively improve a difficult and dangerous situation. A coordinated approach, that uses the various resources of the community, can usually improve seemingly insurmountable problems.

Around the nation, there have been examples of communities that have decided not to accept high crime levels in close proximity to schools. Some state legislatures have designated specific, legally defined, school safety zones to enable communities to make these areas what they should be — safe havens for students, parents and school employees. In other areas, local governments have passed ordinances to address these concerns when their state legislatures have not provided relief.

These statutes are not to be confused with the weapon and drug-free school zone laws that partially address these problems. Effective school safety zone laws and ordinances provide a tool that allows law enforcement officers to deal with a broader range of undesirable behavior, such as loitering within a school safety zone.

When school personnel and law enforcement officials develop a strategy, with significant input from students and area residents, incredible improvement results. Such initiatives also result in strong and sometimes incredible support in the school and the community. Typically, students, school staff and parents quickly embrace school safety zone efforts. Building support for such initiatives by involving the stakeholders is a critical component of this type of strategy.

The most successful school safety zone initiatives involve a strong enforcement component, making the zones high-intensity enforcement areas for traffic and quality-of-life code violations. Many lay people and law enforcement personnel do not realize the powerful connection between seemingly minor violations and serious crime. The connection between aggressive traffic enforcement and the prevention of drive-by shootings is a case in point.

For a drive by shooting to occur, five elements must be present:

1. Gang members (traditionally)

2. One or more guns

3. A car

4. The desire to commit the crime

5. Access to the intended target(s)

One way to prevent such a crime from taking place near a school is to remove one or more of the required elements. Intensive traffic enforcement often helps to deal with at least three of those elements by limiting the perpetrators’ access to the intended victim(s). It is common for gang members to“hunt” an intended victim by repeatedly driving through or parking in an area where the victim is likely to pass. Gang members have found the school zone to be such a place. Intensive traffic enforcement, however, makes the school zone a high-risk environment for the gang member.

Gang members do not generally fare well in areas where traffic enforcement efforts are intensive. A study conducted by the International Association of Chiefs of Police found that police recover most illegal firearms in this country during traffic stops.

Another negative aspect of a highly patrolled area is that gang members’ vehicles often end up in the impound lot because of a failure to comply with safety requirements. Careful monitoring of nonmoving violations such as illegal parking can also be a detriment.

The drive-by shooting is just one problem that school safety zone efforts can address. A host of others can be dealt with just as effectively, as long as the strategy is designed using a team approach that stresses the partnership between the school, the law enforcement agency and the residents of the neighborhood.

Schools should not, and can not, be tasked with the responsibility of securing these zones alone. But they can be a major component in the problem-solving process. Assertive school/community policing practices can quickly convince the criminal element that students and others on campus and travelling to and from school are“off limits.” Isn’t it time that we sent that message loudly and clearly?

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at