This article is based on an interview with a noted expert on school violence who recently co-authored the book Innocent Targets: When Terrorism Comes to School. Central to school safety are supportive bonds with adults who help create school climates free of bullying.
Q: A number of people claiming to be terrorism experts have been predicting a variety of types of terrorist attacks on American schools. Do you predict school terrorism incidents in American schools?
Michael Dorn: I’m seeing people waste a lot of time and energy on “what ifs,” when they’re ignoring what’s right in front of them. It is impossible to make accurate predictions without access to current intelligence information, and the only people who have that, of course, are in government. Those of us who have actual experience in the field of anti-terrorism and experience in governmental school safety centers feel that most of the predictions that we’ve seen floating about the media are not likely scenarios. Our research shows that school terrorism events are extremely rare events. We have found only three incidents in U.S. history where schools were targeted by terrorists, and in all cases the terrorists were from the United States (Dorn & Dorn, 2005). Incidents in Wyoming and Alabama involved militia and the Beltway Sniper was in Maryland.
Q: Though school terrorism incidents are rare, they are very serious when they do occur. What do you recommend school and public safety officials do to try to prevent and prepare for acts of terrorism?
Michael Dorn: We recommend they do what they should already be doing—develop a comprehensive, four-phase school safety plan as recommended by the U.S. Department of Education (2003). And if they develop that four-phase, all-hazards plan, working closely with local officials, if they address traditional concerns, by and large, they will address terrorism concerns. For example, good access control to schools protects children from non-custodial abductions, child molesters who come to school on occasion, drug dealers and others who may trespass on campus, and also makes it harder for terrorists. They should have a proper emergency operations plan and address a wide range of hazards, including biological and chemical situations—which usually happen accidentally. Doing these things usually covers most terrorist concerns.
Q: What are some other current trends in school safety?
Michael Dorn: We’re seeing a greater awareness; this is a major push for our non-profit safety center. School officials are becoming more aware that they have not been getting what they’re paying for in some of their private consultant services. If they use a qualified training firm, consultant firm, or government agency, they find they can do a better job for less money. Government is putting out a lot of material to help schools do a better job without pouring money down an endless well. And I think that is going to continue. We’re seeing schools right now that are in litigation and are losing because they relied on unqualified consultants four or five years ago. They purchased school safety plans, but those plans have failed and now the schools are getting sued. And the schools are losing. Simply paying people to do the work for you is not the best approach. It is better to train your staff and local officials to work together to write your school safety plans and emergency operations plans. Do your own site surveys instead of hiring consultants to do that for you.
Q: What are the most pressing issues for school safety today?
Michael Dorn: First is the more efficient use of safety resources, which covers a lot of things that I just talked about, but also available staff and available information. Some pressing issues have been around for 20 years, and I think will remain pressing issues for some time, like the failure of school and community safety officials to adequately identify and address risk. Another related issue is negligent supervision. I still think that proper supervision of school children is more elusive than people realize.
Q: What do you mean by “negligent supervision”?
Michael Dorn: It is a legal term, used when school districts are sued. For example, in most litigation against schools and with most deaths, whether from violence or accident, you find a common denominator: students were not being adequately supervised. Thus, if a child falls and dies because of being allowed to climb on something unsafe, or if someone brought a weapon in that led to a stabbing because we didn’t properly supervise and control the environment.
A lot of people think that just because a teacher, coach, or staff member is present that children are being supervised, which is not always true. Many adults do not understand that supervision is a top priority, and time and time again bullying can happen ten feet from a teacher. Every minute school is in session, we must supervise every child. We have to design our schools, conduct education, and interact with students in such a manner to minimize negligent supervision. That means students and others won’t be in unsupervised places where they can do things they shouldn’t do. Otherwise, problems develop, whether it is bullying, violent behavior, or sexual behavior.
Q: In your writing, you mention the importance of uncovering, reporting, and tracking school incidents.
Michael Dorn: Many have inaccurate assumptions of the threat level in a school. For example, if you ask middle school administrators about the level of bullying, they might cite a percentage; but, if they have not surveyed students, staff, and parents, they are just guessing. It's like not testing your students for math and presuming you know what their math ability is throughout your district. Many districts don’t use proper survey instruments. They do not evaluate reported incident data and contrast it with self-reported information in surveys. They do not do an annual physical assessment of the facility to spot physical indications that they have incidents occurring on campus. Those are three ways to accurately determine threat levels. Often, schools did not think they had a problem until it hit them right between the eyes in a very big way.
Q: How can school personnel connect with youth who are vulnerable to gang influence, school failure, and delinquency?
Michael Dorn: First, on an environmental basis, you can design, structure, and operate schools in a manner that makes them warm and caring places where children can succeed. Academic success is critical when we talk about intervention strategies such as keeping kids out of gangs. We can do this through building design, through policies, through how we structure and design a school, and the way we operate it.
Second, on a personal level, we can constantly advocate for children and serve as cheerleaders for all who work with children. There are more people who may become too narrowly focused on one thing they are doing. We are not just teaching these kids math or English, but we are helping them succeed and overcome adversity.
The third thing we can do, again on a personal level, is reach out to individual children. A child who has a close connection with a caring responsible adult can often overcome incredible odds. Children are very resilient when they have this type of support. As we advocate for children, we can make a difference. When a student who has been bullied tells us, “I made it because of you. I stayed in school because of you,” there may be 50 to 100 others who stayed in school because of that staff member but never said anything (Dorn, 2003). It is unbelievable sometimes how much of a difference a bus driver, a teacher, a teacher’s aide, or someone who works in the cafeteria can make if they have the right attitude and reach out to help kids. It is absolutely astounding, but often they see the problems but do not realize the remarkable good they do.
Q: In your book, Weakfish: Bullying Through the Eyes of a Child, you talk about the need for those who work with children to be vigilant when it comes to bullying. How common is it for students to be severely bullied and not to tell an adult about it?
Michael Dorn: It is extremely common for children to go through the ordeal of being chronically bullied every day, to be close to dropping out of school, close to suicide, close to bringing a weapon and using it on someone, and for that student to never once tell an adult. The research shows that between 12–18% of children are bullied every day and don’t tell an adult (Olweus, 1993). These are the children who are most at risk. They are also the most likely to never tell us they need help. We have to spot those indicators, to reach out to those children, and uncover that bullying. It’s extraordinarily important.
Q: What is the danger for children who are not able to speak about bullying or do not have a supportive adult?
Michael Dorn: There is a dramatically increased risk of suicide, dropping out of school, greatly heightened risk of bringing weapons to school and using them, and problems after they have finished school. We have seen a number of studies that indicate they may have serious problems with their social life into their thirties (Dorn, 2003). We could do this whole interview on the horrible problems of chronic bullying. There are so many children who have taken their own lives, who have dropped out of school, who are in prison because of what they went through. The other side is it is not just the victim. It is pretty clear that chronic bullies have a much higher likelihood of serving prison time. We are doing them a disservice as well when we allow them to victimize these other children.
Q: What can teachers and other adults do to assist both the bullied and those doing the bullying?
Michael Dorn: The first thing is to care and be alert. The next is to become educated on issues of bullying; there is a lot of good information out there. But they need to take the right approach; bullying is a hot market, and many well-meaning attempts to try to address bullying have been very counter-productive. For example, peer mediation can be very effective in resolving some conflicts, but it should never be used for bullying situations. Peer mediation is for a conflict between two people. Bullying is not conflict. Bullying is victimization of one or more persons by another group of one or more persons. And there is a real inequality of power, real or perceived. Using peer mediation for bullying situations is like having a rapist apologize to a woman he has raped and asking the two of them to shake hands.
One should be mindful that we may see only the tip of the iceberg. Many children who are being chronically bullied are in that 12–18% who will not tell us. The next largest percentage includes the kids who will tell us once (Olweus, 1993); they will come to one adult and make one attempt. This may be a parent, a teacher, a custodian, or a school bus driver. They may report one incident but do not necessarily tell you what has been going on the last three months.
We have to investigate when we hear of bullying since in some cases there is a lot more to it than initially meets the eye. We have to ask a lot of questions and get more information before we act. What appears to be just an incident of hitting or name-calling may be far more serious than we think.
Q: What can community groups and churches do to keep their facilities safe, even while mentoring kids who may be gang-involved?
Michael Dorn: We do a lot of work with churches and youth organizations, such as the YMCA and, in particular, Boys and Girls Clubs of America. They face a lot of the same issues as schools, but they have a unique situation where they have to draw youth to them, in contrast to schools, where youth are told to go to them. When we think about creating that environment and atmosphere, we get into things like CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design)—the use of murals, the use of colors, and the layout of an area.
For example, if we want to draw youth to a Sunday school class, we need to create a structured and safe environment, just like schools do. But we have to go further and make it a fun place where kids want to come. Boys and Girls Clubs put a lot of emphasis on this and have had dramatic success. And that is why some Clubs have incredible rates of usage by youth in their community. Safety is important for schools, but it is even more critical for voluntary organizations that don’t have a compelled audience. Most of the same principles apply: reaching out to a child personally, making sure that all those organizations understand the difference they can make for those children. Close supervision is very important as bullying and assaults do happen, even in churches. One would be surprised at how much safety-related litigation churches face. Since they do not typically have qualified immunity as a government entity, they may be easier to sue. These safety-related issues range from people tripping to child molestation to outright physical assaults. Unfortunately, such things can happen in any setting, including a place of worship.
Q: What else would you like to tell our readers?
Michael Dorn: Never underestimate the absolutely profound impact they can have on the world by working with youth. Personally, I had child advocates reach out to me, and I went from an absolutely abysmal existence, where I would have just as soon died as take another breath, to someone who today works with people all over the world.
It is astounding what some of these folks have done. In the worst neighborhoods, with limited fiscal resources, they just have that burning desire to help children and they let nothing stand in their way. Miracles happen. I would encourage anybody who works with children to never give up. And never underestimate what they can do.
Jerilyn Dufresne was formerly the director of communications and editor for the Crisis Prevention Institute, Inc.
Michael Dorn is the executive director of Safe Havens International, Inc., a non-profit school safety center. He also serves as the Senior Public Safety and Emergency Manager for Jane's Consultancy. During a 20-year campus law enforcement career, he served with the Mercer University Police Department, rising to school district police chief by the age of 27. He was School Safety Specialist for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency (GEMA), which is now part of the Georgia Department of Homeland Security. Michael has authored and co-authored 20 books on school safety and writes monthly columns for several magazines and journals. He can be reached through his websites at www.safehavensinternational.org or www.schoolterrorism.com.
Dorn, M. (2003). Weakfish: Bullying through the eyes of a child. Macon, GA: Safe Havens International.
Dorn, M., & Dorn C. (2005). Innocent targets: When terrorism comes to school. Macon, GA: Safe Havens International.
Olweus, D. (1993). Bullying at school: What we know and what we can do. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers.
U.S. Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. (2003). Practical Information on Crisis Planning: a Guide for Schools and Communities. Washington, DC: Author. Retrieved 3/17/05 from http://www2.ed.gov/admins/lead/safety/emergencyplan/crisisplanning.pdf