Schools get tough in a dangerous world Cultural shift: Law enforcement will help, but real cause of school violence involves societal problems.

June 01, 1998

AS RECENTLY as 15 or 20 years ago, putting a police or probation officer in a school would have embarrassed a community, especially in rural and suburban areas.

The move would have been viewed as a sign of chaos, a stigma. Today, the receptive reaction to assorted plans to establish a law enforcement presence in schools signals a cultural shift.

The change is not that most schools are unsafe now, despite a spate of fatal school shootings, including May 21 in Springfield, Ore. The juvenile homicide rate is dropping. The supervision and structure of schools mean that, with some exceptions, mostly in cities, they are still a safe haven.

And while the complications of late-20th-century family life have produced kids with complex problems, it is debatable whether they are inherently more violent, angry or frustrated than were kids years ago.

The big difference today is easy access to firearms and the constant glorification of violence in popular culture. Thus, personal discontent is transformed into the potential for deadly violence.

Here in Maryland, we have avoided disaster. But we are ever aware of the possibilities: Last week an eighth-grader at Baltimore County's rural Hereford Middle School was arrested for bringing a handgun and eight rounds of ammunition to school.

In this context, the sight of a uniformed officer in a school has become a reassuring sign that steps are being taken to prevent our own neighborhoods from becoming another Springfield. Indeed, we have come to expect and rely on tangible evidence of efforts to protect us in all kinds of places we assume to be safe -- malls, hospitals, supermarkets. That is the cultural shift. Visible law enforcement has become a sign of security, not of the community's demise.

Recent news that the state plans to assign 26 new and eight existing Department of Juvenile Justice probation officers in 80 schools -- in places such as Westminster and Columbia -- came and went without controversy.

In Howard County, principals, student leaders, teachers and parents have welcomed the regular presence of local police as mentors and enforcers in high schools since 1996. Similar programs to start in Harford and Baltimore counties this fall are also getting warm receptions.

Certainly an argument exists for close monitoring of kids who have been in trouble with the law, for prompt intervention with the problem-prone and for establishing order and trust between youngsters and police.

But officers roaming the halls and get-tough policies are not a cure-all. Neither the threat of mandatory expulsion nor school policing will stop a student determined to shoot up the cafeteria.

Our schools reflect complicated societal problems: changes in family structure that have left many children without direction, values and a sense of responsibility; the celebration of gun violence in movies, TV shows and video games as an easy, acceptable means of dealing with anger and frustration; the exposure of children to adult issues; and our inability to keep firearms out of the hands of children.

Putting police and probation officers in schools will do some good. But we must move beyond that easy solution if we want to ensure that what happened in Oregon doesn't happen again.

Pub Date: 6/01/98

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