Relationships, Not Police, Make Schools Safer

Patrolling campuses and patting down students isn't what ends the cycle of violence on campus.

It's pretty difficult for a student to focus on school work if he's worried about whether he's going to get beat up by gang members between classes. So, in pursuit of school safety in high-crime urban areas, most districts either have their own police force, or allow city police on middle and high school campuses—which, of course, ends up making students feel like they're being treated like third strikers.

Unsurprisingly, it turns out that approach is all wrong. According to a new study from the Consortium on Chicago School Research at the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, instead of hiring more officers and installing more metal detectors, schools would be better off focusing their safety efforts on building positive relationships with students and fostering achievement.

The study focused specifically on Chicago and the efficacy of school district's "Culture of Calm" initiative which was begun after the 2009 beating death of 16-year-old South Side honor student Derrion Albert. The researchers surveyed almost 120,000 students and more than 12,500 teachers and compared their responses to "neighborhood crime statistics, neighborhood and school demographics, and student achievement test scores."

What they found is that students and teachers in high-crime, high-poverty areas do tend to feel less safe, but when high-quality teacher-student and student-student relationships are cultivated, the perception of safety increases. And, when academics are emphasized, students that previously got attention from teachers by engaging in negative behaviors—bullying, gossiping, or fighting—begin to enjoy the positive attention they receive when they're recognized for getting good grades and contributing to the school community.

Matthew Steinberg, the head author of the report thinks the findings could be empowering for teachers.

"The promise of these findings is that they provide concrete guidance on where educators struggling with crime and disorder should focus attention and resources. There are so many factors schools can’t control—neighborhood crime, violence in students’ homes—so it is exciting to pinpoint an area that schools really can influence."


The report is a promising look at what really works to end school violence, but, sadly, Albert's murder didn't happen on campus. There's also the challenge of keeping kids safe after they step leave school and return to gang- and crime-plagued neighborhoods. You might not be beaten up while you're in the hallway, but all bets are off while you're walking home.

photo (cc) via Flickr user John Steven Fernandez

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