The enemy within

17th May 1996 at 01:00
In the wake of the Dunblane massacre most discussions about school security have focused, quite understandably, on the external threat from intruders. But this week's Dispatches programme on the weapons that teenagers carry has provided a disturbing reminder of the internal menaces that schools now have to face.

Pupil violence and weapon-carrying may not be as endemic in British cities as they are in New York where 4,000 weapons are confiscated from pupils each year and some schools are patrolled by four police officers. Nevertheless, the Channel 4 documentary has underlined the need for this week's report by the Government's working party on school security. The committee's 22 recommendations are welcome and the Government would be well advised to provide the "substantial new money" that has been asked for without delay. Robbing another part of next year's education budget to pay for this essential work could cause more outrage than any other education policy of recent years. No mean achievement.

However, the debate on school security must go beyond funding, important though that is. Nor should we get bogged down by discussions on the height of perimeter fencing, the efficacy of closed circuit TV, and the type of panic buttons and personal alarms that should be distributed to staff. All of these measures should help to reduce the number of casualties in schools and cut the colossal bill for burglary, arson and vandalism, which may be as high as Pounds 150 million. They will not, however, reduce the aggression levels in the classroom and playground, and they will not make the journey between home and school any safer for children and staff.

The sale of handguns, martial arts weapons and knives should be curtailed without delay, even though the kitchen drawer would inevitably provide almost equally lethal substitutes. A sustained debate - informed by research rather than anecdote - also needs to begin on whether television and film violence is helping to stoke the crime figures.

The French, who have also been shaken by the rising level of violence in their schools, have no fewer than nine research teams examining a variety of strategies for tackling the problem. In the meantime, the French government has decided to double the number of army conscripts stationed in problem schools and has said that student teachers will receive special training in how to cope with the most difficult classes.

But it is quite probable that all this research will merely confirm what people like Professor David Johnson, one of America's leading authorities on school violence, have been saying for years. He thinks that schools should help pupils to manage conflicts in more constructive ways and should try to enlist the support of parents, but he is convinced that only societal changes will provide a real solution. That means reducing unemployment and smashing the poverty cycles that too many families are locked into. Anything less than that will be little more than a temporary palliative.

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