Sunday, April 25, 1999

School districts act to prevent violence


Covington struggles with many incidents

BY ANDREA TORTORA
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        To head off the kind of tragedy that struck Columbine High School in Colorado on Tuesday, Kentucky is trying to spot schools with high levels of violence.

INFOGRAPHICS
Violent incidents in N.Ky. schools by:
Districts Schools
        The shock of the 1997 school shooting in Paducah, Ky., which killed three students, prompted state legislators to act. Beginning in June, Kentucky will require every school district to report the number and nature of all violent incidents that occur in public schools.

        What the state will find is that Covington Schools face an extraordinary number of violent incidents, hundreds more each year than all other districts in Northern Kentucky. And that could mean thousands of dollars in state aid to help Covington reduce the violence that makes it hard for students to learn and teachers to teach, and that could lead to tragedy.

        In anticipation of Kentucky's new program, The Enquirer assembled its own study of school violence among all 17 public school districts in Boone, Campbell, Grant, Kenton and Pendleton counties. The Enquirer study is based on statistics from the 1997-98 school year, and uses the same five categories that will be used by the state of Kentucky. It provides a preview of what Kentucky may find.

        The Enquirer study shows that all school districts report fights between students, attacks or threats against school personnel, incidents involving weapons and cases involving drugs or alcohol.

        But by far the most violence occurs inside Covington's seven elementary schools, middle school and high school. Last year in Covington, there was a daily average of four fights, four physical assaults between students and four attacks or threats against a school employee by a student.

        “I was scared to death to send my daughter there,” said Glenda Huff, who lives near Covington's Holmes High School. Two years ago her daughter entered school as a freshman. “I've lived near the school and watch what goes on with students at the corner.”

        The Kentucky program is designed to make parents like Mrs. Huff feel more at ease by helping schools with high levels of violence through a new Center for School Safety. The center will provide training programs and money so schools can work more closely with the worst offenders — the small group of kids who are responsible for the largest amount of violence.

        The problems facing most schools when it comes to coping with violence are fights, physical assaults and attacks or threats on school employees.

        The Enquirer's study of last year's statistics show incidents can occur in any district at any grade level:

        • At Newport's Fourth Street Elementary, a student swings at a teacher after being brought to the office for disrupting class. The student then tells the principal he will kill him, his father and his grandfather.

        • At Dayton High School, a male student threatens a teacher (“I'll go ballistic on you.”) after being asked to move his seat.

        • At Campbell County Middle School, an eighth grader tells three other students he is going to kill them. The incident started as dispute in the students' neighborhood.

        • At Highlands Middle School in Fort Thomas, an eighth grader sends a threatening note to a teacher (“I'm going to bomb your car and if that doesn't work I'll shoot you”) after being disciplined for disruptive behavior.

        While these incidents may not spell major tragedy on their own, the danger is in the cumulative effect, the constant disruption caused by high levels of violence, and in the potential for an escalation that turns to tragedy.

        The Enquirer study for the 1997-98 school year also found:

        • Fights were most common in Northern Kentucky elementary and middle schools: 818 fights in elementary schools; 509 in middle schools.

        • Attacks or threats on school employees were highest at the high schools; 408 among 19 high schools.

        • Incidents involving drugs or alcohol were most prevalent in suburban and rural school districts. Kenton County Schools reported 29; Boone County, 24; Grant County 20.

        While use, possession or sale of drugs or alcohol are not necessarily violent incidents, those who study school violence feel they are an important indicator for these studies.

        In the Enquirer study of Northern Kentucky schools, incidents involving drugs or alcohol actually represent a small portion — 3.5 percent — of the incidents that will be reported to the state.

        Kentucky is only the ninth state attempting to address school violence by first gauging its dimensions. Ohio and Indiana do not track violent incidents statewide. Ohio lawmakers are toughening penalties for commiting crimes on school property.

        What drives the Kentucky effort is the lingering trauma of the Paducah shooting and fears of another.

        Blake Haselton, Oldham County Schools superintendent, is the chairman of Kentucky's new Center for School Safety. He says violence is a “community issue and the best defense is when the school advises the community about what they see as a threat to safety.”

Schools fight back
        Covington educators know violence is a problem in their schools and they work hard to grapple with a range of disciplinary and social problems. The district puts heavy emphasis on parent involvement, encouraging families to stay involved from preschool through high school.

        Covington enforces one of the region's most comprehensive codes of conduct. Pushing a peer, being late to class and sometimes even a menacing look are frequently written up as violations. Students are required to wear ID tags and use see-through book bags.

        A review of last year's disciplinary numbers told Covington school officials something wasn't right. There were some 20,000 infractions for a student population of 4,995.

        That prompted a revision of the code of conduct and the creation of an alternative school. The school was started for chronically disruptive students, that small group of students often sent to the principal.

        The Enquirer's study, based on figures supplied by the districts, shows Covington leads in levels of violence in four of five categories, and by substantial margins. Suburban districts, including Kenton and Boone, top the category of drug and alcohol possessions.

        One of the most startling statistics was the number of times school employees were attacked or threatened in Covington schools.

        Most districts reported only a handful of incidents — 15 or less. Larger districts reported more incidents: Kenton County 74, Newport 39. But Covington reported 715 attacks or threats on school personnel that year. There were 373 at Holmes High School alone, an average of two a day through the school year.

        Fights and physical assaults happened at least once a day at Covington's First District Elementary. Schools in other districts generally reported less than 20 incidents all year.

        Covington schools recorded 23 times students were caught with pencils, knives or other objects they used as weapons. Most other districts reported none.

        Part of the story behind these numbers is that Covington schools serve an urban population of low-income students.

        “As an urban school, we tend to be in a situation where the kids are more apt to be disruptive in school,” Mr. Fisk said.

        Another reason Covington's numbers are high is that the district is committed to a zero-tolerance policy toward violence. The approach is twofold. Covington's policies deal harshly with violent offenders. And the schools also reach out to students needing extra care and help, in an effort to prevent violence.

        All the emphasis on parent involvement, disciplinary expectations and education is how Covington schools try to hold students accountable for their actions. And early indications are positive.

        Glenda Huff's daughter is now a junior at Holmes High. Afraid for her daughter's safety as an incoming freshman, Mrs. Huff decided then to get involved.

        Mrs. Huff was part of the Holmes council of parents, teachers and the principal, which created one of the area's toughest conduct codes. Among the many new rules drafted by parents and school personnel, Holmes students may not wear coats, hooded sweatshirts, blazers or other clothes that can conceal weapons.

        “Even though last year when we did away with the jackets I thought it was kind of ridiculous,” Mrs. Huff said, but “after (Colorado) I kind of see their point. They really do try to make it as safe as possible.”

        But students and teachers inside Covington schools still face the most violent environment in Northern Kentucky. Frequent violent disruptions steal class time from students and teachers, and contribute to an air of apprehension inside the schools.

        “Our numbers indicate we don't tolerate much,” said Rodney Fisk, Covington's director of pupil personnel. “But I want teachers to spend 360 minutes a day on education. We lose too much instructional time dealing with non-instructional issues.”

        Several Holmes teachers said their classes are interrupted fairly frequently by students being called out of class on disciplinary matters. “The interruptions are a way of life,” English teacher Jan Ferguson said.

        At the same time, Covington students and staff say the district is not as bad as the numbers suggest.

        “People hear inner city and they think there are drug deals going on right in front of the teacher and gang meetings in the hallways,” senior Eric McDonald said. “That just doesn't happen.”

        Holmes High Principal William Grein said, “A few kids can really affect the perception of the whole school.”

Money in the pipeline
        The statistics Kentucky collects on school violence could mean thousands in financial aid to districts like Covington. More than $9 million in grants will be awarded throughout the state in the 1999-2000 school year to schools that report high levels of violence.

        Under Kentucky's new safe schools plan, Covington could receive up to $500,000 to improve and expand a new alternative school for problem students. Now in its first year, the alternative program puts students who would otherwise be expelled in a school that offers behavior modification, counseling and social services to help students finish school.

        Bruce Walford is co-director of the new $15 million Kentucky Center for School Safety at Eastern Kentucky University in Richmond.He studies school and crime statistics. Without good statistics on school violence, Mr. Walford said, there is no reliable way to gauge “the scope of the problem” or to target preventive programs.

        Rodney Fisk, who is in charge of discipline at Covington schools, said it is important to have resources to fix problems once the data is collected.

        Ronald Stephens, director of the National School Safety Center at Pepperdine University in Malibu, Calif., said “the data speaks volumes about the types of strategies and tactics that need to take place in preventing those incidents,” Mr. Stephens said. “It's ironic that we have mandated crime reporting for colleges and universities, but nothing on the K-12 level.”

        In the Enquirer study, many Northern Kentucky school districts reported few or no incidents in various categories. Experts in school violence worry some districts may fail to record or may underreport violent incidents.

        People who study school violence say accuracy will be critical in this kind of program.

        “If you do not know what the problems are,” said Pamela Riley, director of North Carolina's Center for the Prevention of School Violence,“how can you develop solutions?”

        Covington — and Kentucky — are taking the right steps, said Pepperdine's Mr. Stephens, especially in emphasizing community involvement. “It's incredibly important for the community and parents to be involved,” he said. “School crime prevention is really community crime prevention.”

        Covington's aggressive measures for fighting school violence are already being cited by education officials in Kentucky and other states as models for other schools.

        Ms. Riley's organization has been helping public schools since 1993. As an example of its impact, North Carolina has seen a 65 percent decrease in the number of cases involving possession of a firearm on campus.

        “We don't need to turn the school into prisons,” Ms. Riley said. “The challenge now is preparing for those things we hope will never happen.”

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