ST. PAUL - Despite some high-profile mass shootings, U.S. schools are growing safer every year, the Obama administration’s top school safety official said Friday to kick off a conference at Hamline University in St. Paul.
Drug and alcohol use at K-12 schools is flat, but theft, gangs and weapons aren’t the problems they used to be, said David Esquith, director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students.
What’s more, Esquith said, kids say they feel safer: In surveys, 3 percent of students in 2013 said they were afraid of being harmed at school, down from 12 percent in 1995.
“Schools are safer than they’ve ever been. At the same time, there’s still a lot of work to do,” Esquith said.
Among the persistent challenges, he said, is violence against teachers. In 2011-12, 6 percent of U.S. teachers reported being assaulted by a student in the previous year, and 10 percent said they were threatened by a student.
Esquith said schools must figure out how to make classrooms safe for everyone without simply kicking students out of school.
Suspensions and expulsions are an easy answer, he said, but they just make the child “somebody else’s problem.”
“We have to believe in every student,” Esquith said. “We have to see the good in everyone and the potential in everyone.”
Almost 300 educators and others signed up for Friday’s Minnesota Safe and Supportive Schools Conference, organized by the state Department of Education, Hamline School of Education and PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center.
In April 2014, Gov. Mark Dayton signed into law the Safe and Secure Schools Act, which strengthened anti-bullying protections.
Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius told the conference Friday that the law “has been embraced in our schools.”
Cassellius said students can’t succeed academically if they don’t feel safe and welcome, she said.
Assistant commissioner Kevin McHenry said schools have begun taking more holistic approaches to behavior problems, beyond traditional discipline like suspensions.
“We have a ways to go, but we’ve made some significant progress in just the last couple of years,” he said.
Esquith said that on the heels of the December 2012 mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., his office has focused on emergency preparedness and mental health services.
But he warned school officials against neglecting more routine threats to student safety as they prepare for an active shooter on campus; a good emergency plan can do both, he said.
The most powerful threats to school safety, Esquith said, are students who are lonely, fearful and hopeless. He said fellow students are the best tools for getting those kids help and preventing serious harm.
“It’s not metal detectors; it’s not arming teachers. It’s when other kids report it,” he said.