School violence seen ebbing
By Treena Shapiro
Advertiser Government Writer
By Treena Shapiro
Despite some high-profile incidents of violence at local schools the last couple of years, a federal report issued this month indicates students and teachers feel safer than during the early 1990s.
The data corresponds with anecdotal reports from principals who suggest that tighter security and lower tolerance for violent behavior have generally led to a safer school environment.
The report from the National Center on Education Statistics, a compilation of data from student and staff surveys and public agencies, found that in many areas Hawai'i youths report less violence than their counterparts across the country, particularly when it comes to bringing weapons to school and getting into fights on campus.
The results need to be taken with a grain of salt — much of it is self-reported by students — but since 1993 there has been a clear downward trend in students saying that they had been in a school fight or carried a gun, knife or club on campus.
In 2005, 10 percent of Hawai'i students said they had fought on school property, compared to 13 percent nationwide, while 5 percent said they fought on campus, compared to a 6.5 percent national average.
The positive results don't surprise Farrington High School principal Catherine Payne, who said, "In general, everyone is really conscious of trying to keep things as peaceful as possible."
This can be a hard task at a time when students have easier access than ever to guns and drugs. However, in this post-Columbine era, principals say that they have safety plans ready to diffuse tense situations.
Payne had to put her emergency response to the test back in September when gang fights broke out on and near her Kalihi campus. The response seems to have worked.
"We haven't had any kind of organized gang violence since then," she said.
She said she thinks students recognize that the gang fights are exceptional incidents.
In Hawai'i, students' fears about personal safety peaked in 1999, and last year returned to 1993 levels, with about 7 percent of students saying they had skipped school because they did not feel safe attending, according to youth surveys by the National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, which were used in the NCES report.
The report is based on 2005 data, so would not include the gang fights or a vicious attack on a Maui student last month.
Those types of fights tend to draw intense media attention because they are so rare in Hawai'i.
Joan Husted, executive director of the Hawai'i State Teachers Association, said that the state's public schools have far fewer serious assaults than might be expected in such a large district.
"We've never had a child killed on campus," she pointed out. "We've never had a teacher raped."
However, about 9 percent of teachers — 2 percentage points above the national average — say they have been threatened by students, and Husted said teachers consistently report that they spend 25 percent of their time disciplining students.
While Hawai'i compares well with the national average, a Department of Education official said the numbers might not actually reflect what occurs during the school day.
Since the term "on campus" is not defined in the survey, answers could refer to connected city parks or events that occur at night when students are trespassing on campus. "If anything, the numbers have been high," said coordinated student health specialist David Randall.
Nevertheless, he said that since the same questions have been asked since 1993, the trend data is valid. "It's very reliable data, but it's self-reported by the kids," he said.
Principal Pat Pedersen said she has seen a marked improvement in school safety over the decade she has been at Waipahu High School.
According to Pedersen, students are well-informed of school rules and the consequences for breaking them. If the students persist in misbehavior, she said that consistent enforcement helps prevent other students from following suit.
One thing that has really worked at Waipahu is developing relationships within the community, including with the police.
"A few years ago, we started a partnership between the Police Department and the school community," Pedersen said. "We learned a lot in terms of what we need to do to respond to intruders on campus and weapons on campus."
It's been several years now since schools across the state were told to revise their school safety policies and action plans, and Pedersen said the school still practices evacuations and lockdowns in case of extreme emergencies.
Payne said that Farrington is also prepared to deal quickly with emergencies.
"The most important part of my job is to keep the school safe and the children safe," she said.
Reach Treena Shapiro at firstname.lastname@example.org.