Published September 2003
Every morning, parents at Denver’s Barnum Elementary School don lime green vests and grab the donated cell phones programmed for emergency dialing. They stand watch for an hour at the four corners outside the building as children file in.
More parents appear in the afternoon as school lets out, ready to dial 911 and record license numbers and physical descriptions of predators, criminals, and bullies. Sometimes other parents also patrol in their cars. And neighbors come out into their yards to wave at the children and watch their safe progress through the streets toward home. Since the Barnum Parent Watch began last year because of five incidents of strangers approaching children, there hasn’t been a single such report.
The program was the brainchild of Denver community resource police officers Mark Roggeman and Manny Hayes, who knew that an adult presence could deter problems. They called a meeting at the school, and were delighted when 180 parents and neighborhood residents turned out. Ultimately, 22 parents signed up to stand watch regularly, and many local homeowners also agreed to step out onto their lawns when children were walking home. The parents, who undergo criminal background checks and wear a button with their photo on it, received training in how to watch, as well as what not to do.
“They are not to approach vehicles and are not to take anything into their own hands,” says Roggeman. “Their job is to be the best witnesses they can and to make themselves obvious.”
Being There Is Key
The most effective way that parents can help secure schools, say many experts, is simply by their presence. According to the 1999 U.S. Department of Justice report The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools, “Simply providing more adults, especially parents, in schools will reduce the opportunities for security infractions and increase the likelihood of being caught.”
“I feel very strongly about volunteers in a school whenever possible as an extra set of eyes,” says the report’s author, Mary Green, a security specialist with Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque, N.M.
Parent presence is a great deterrent, but only if all parents follow safety procedures. “When you’re there a lot, you get lax,” says Cathy Ingrasci, former PTO president at Calvin Coolidge Elementary School in Wyckoff, N.J. “I check the PTO box all the time, then run down to the media specialist. I might not have signed in. But we’ve made it more of a priority to remind people when they come in to sign in.”
What Ingrasci points up is in fact a significant problem. “One of the things happening all over the country is that a school has a procedure, a visitor log, say, where you sign in and get a name tag,” says Peter Blauvelt, president of the National Alliance for Safe Schools in Slanesville, W.Va. “But then you have a parent who comes in and says, ‘You know who I am. I’m just dropping off my child’s lunch.’ Then someone else says, ‘That person isn’t wearing a name badge.’ And nothing destroys confidence any quicker than when you have a select group of adults who don’t play by the rules.”
Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services in Cleveland, agrees. “Those who violate security procedures would be the first to complain if something happened to their kid,” he says.
Security Cutbacks at Issue
The role of parents has becoming increasingly important as some schools facing budget crises have eliminated their police and security personnel. Their loss will be felt especially by the many PTOs that have cultivated relationships with these officers by inviting them at least once a year to speak at PTO meetings. Indian Hill Primary School in Cincinnati, which does not have its own resource officer, goes a step further, inviting local police to have lunch with the children periodically. “It’s about building a positive relationship,” says Principal Sandra Harte. “We want the children to see the police as someone welcome to be around and their friend.”
That kind of relationship reaps many rewards. At Barnum, Officer Roggeman keeps an eye on when volunteer enthusiasm for security begins to flag. “I go over there once in a while to see how we’re doing, to see if maybe we need another meeting to get things going,” says Roggeman.
Local police departments also often play a role in child identification programs. At an annual safety fair offered by Indian Hill Primary and organized through a local children’s hospital, police offer fingerprinting and identification kits, which parents can file with the police department if they choose. The fair also addresses bike and bus safety.
While the information gathered for these identification programs will probably never be used, many consider them useful.
“Unfortunately, it’s a necessity with all the stranger dangers, Internet predators, and domestic custody issues,” says Trump. “It’s a really good, cost-effective way to provide an extra resource in the unlikely event you need it. When a crisis occurs, the last thing you want to do is search for that basic information. One thing we know is that time is critical when investigating a potential abduction, and it helps expedite the process.”
Safety Tips for Schools
- Keep the campus clean and attractive. Problems such as litter give the impression that the school is uncared for and thus invites trouble. Murals can help deter vandalism.
- When using cameras, be aware of visual problems such as shadows and glare. Use cameras with video recorders; real-time monitoring is not usually effective because the attention of the person doing the monitoring is not consistent. Use color recordings to help identify culprits (by clothing, for example). Use cameras with fixed lenses rather than zoom lenses. They’re more reliable, because human intervention is not required. Post signs that video cameras are in use (but only if they are).
- Consider less expensive solutions such as anti-graffiti sealer and glass block windows.
- Use fencing when practical. When it’s not, install a barrier of thorny pyracantha bushes.
- Improve lighting.
- For visitors, issue temporary badges. Change the badge color regularly so they can’t be reused.
These publications provide specific information on school safety issues.
Caregiver’s Guide to School Safety. A National Crime Prevention Council program called Be Safe & Sound in School encourages parent involvement in security. Its “Caregiver’s Guide to School Safety” pamphlet is available for download.
The Appropriate and Effective Use of Security Technologies in U.S. Schools. The U.S. Department of Justice’s National Institute of Justice offers the complete 1999 report on its website.
The School Resource Officer and the Prevention of Violence in Schools. The National Association of School Resource Officers provides this PDF report along with others on its Resources page.
Originally posted in 2003 and updated regularly.