More Security in Smaller Schools?

The shootings at Virginia Tech University, coming as they did close to the anniversary of the Columbine shootings in Colorado, put all educational administrators on high security alert. I cannot imagine that there were many schools in the United States that did not review their security procedures, question their adequacy, and wonder what else they could do to avoid any such incidents on their grounds.

It was also an opportunity for security experts to be interviewed, to suggest measures that schools could take, and to hawk their availability and their wares.

Unfortunately, increased security is now a fact of life on school grounds. A few years ago, I reviewed all of the schools in a small city. Several older elementary schools had the principal’s office upstairs. There was no sense of a need to have the principal at the front door, ensuring that only authorized students, staff, and visitors entered. Schools were safe havens.

Today, each of those schools has an office at the front door, the door is locked during the day, and one must push a buzzer and smile into a video camera to gain admittance. Security has become a priority. It makes sense. Today schools are safe havens only if they are made so.

But all the security in the world cannot prevent the kind of irrational human behavior that has led to shootings and other violence in and around schools. Even the most expert of the security experts will tell you that.

Which brings me to the point of this column. I noted one common denominator in the description of every recent shooting incident. In every case, it was said that the shooter was“a loner,”“a little bit different,” “had been referred to and met (or had not met) with a guidance counselor.” Interviews indicated that the shooter(s) were not well known to students or teachers. They had become lost in the crowd.

If there was ever an argument for the value of small learning communities, this is it.

“Rural Policy Matters” spotlighted a survey published by the National Center for Education Statistics showing that student apathy and absenteeism were seen as serious problems much more often in larger schools (900 or more students) than in smaller schools (fewer than 300 students). As size of school grew, more and more teachers identified the problems as serious.

Creating small learning communities in which “anonymity is banished” was a major theme of the book “Breaking Ranks.” Though the book was about changing secondary schools, its lessons reverberate through all levels of education. In small groups there is less chance for a student to disappear, to go unnoticed, and to have grievances that grow and grow and finally explode.

Of course, small learning communities are not going to eliminate irrational behavior, nor will they guarantee that no student falls between the cracks. The hope is, however, that if a team of designated adults concentrates on a small group of students, there will always be at least one who will pick up on a problem, even, perhaps, becoming a confidante to a troubled student.

Nor do districts need to abandon their existing large schools in order to create conditions for “knowing” every student. Small learning communities can be created within larger schools through scheduling, by creating thematic centers, by setting up teams of perhaps 100 students with four or five teachers, and by providing time in the day when teachers can regularly meet with students — not to teach subject matter but to talk and listen about the process, problems, and opportunities of growing up.

Another lesson from “Breaking Ranks” — “Each student needs to know that at least one adult in the school is closely concerned with his or her fate.” To ensure that, the book calls for giving each student a Personal Adult Advocate to ensure that “no youngster experiences the sense of isolation that frequently engulfs teenagers during this critical period of their lives.”

School security is important but security is not just locking doors, patrolling corridors, and setting up cameras to catch perpetrators. Security also involves creating a situation where every student is known as a person, where teachers take responsibility and ensure that when something is causing a student to act out or to withdraw, the student is noticed, spoken to, and counseled. That’s much easier to accomplish in a small community when the student is one of a few, rather than in a large school where he or she is one of thousands.

About the Author

Paul Abramson is education industry analyst for SP&M and president of Stanton Leggett & Associates, an educational facilities consulting firm based in Mamaroneck, N.Y. He was named CEPFI’s 2008 "Planner of the Year."