Greater Boston Education Reports

School Violence

John Carroll: It started with this message on a bathroom wall at Newton South last May:

JC: The next day, this message. The following day, this one.

Student A: It's just the fear that someone could think of something like this in a Newton school and it just kind of gets me a little scared.

Student B: I don't really think it's safe for me.

JC: Police launched an investigation, almost two-thirds of the students stayed home one day, and metal detectors were installed at the school's entrance.

Student C: It was pouring outside, there was a huge line, we had to go through one of the doors which had metal detectors, people were checking your bags, and it was just crazy.

JC:And then a Newton South under-classman was arrested.

Frank Gorgonne, Newton Police Chief: A Newton South student has been charged with making a false report of an explosive device, which is a felony, and also with threats to commit a crime, a misdemeanor.

Michael Welch, Acting Principal: One of the important things to think about is trying to balance where we were last year coming off of this incident with the graffiti and trying to figure out how are we going to keep the school with a safe feel to it.

JC: Now as the new school year begins, administrators at Newton South are wrestling with the fallout from last year's events.

Michael Welch: So, could someone bring a gun in here?

Ed Jackson, Housemaster: Yeah, sure, and I think probably someone has at some point in time over the last ten years. And we've never been very diligent about having strangers sign in at the school. Our outdoor lighting is horrific, you know, you could camp an army out here in our courtyard and no one would know it, overnight. So we need to work on very fundamental things here.

JC: And they have from telephones in every classroom to student IDs to school-controlled locks on student lockers. Administrators have also considered security cameras and uniformed police on school grounds.

JC: But what they have not promoted as a solution is the popular but controversial zero-tolerance policy other schools have instituted, in which the maximum penalty is handed out for every infraction.

Michael Welch: I'm not a big fan of blanket policies toward zero tolerance. It just doesn't acknowledge the intricacies of every single situation that occurs.

JC: But acting principal Michael Welch knows that puts added pressure on administrators when a crisis does occur.

JC: Do you worry that there may be backlash among parents, or some parents, that if you don't have that policy and something happens, that they've got a lot of amunition to come back at you with?

Michael Welch: Sure and that's something we kid each other about, the stage test. Are you prepared with any decision you made to stand up in front of all the parents and explain why you did this? And so much of that boils back to trust.

JC: Gina Healy, a housemaster at Newton South, was responsible for balancing security and student rights last spring.

Gina Healy, Housemaster: In the time of the crisis in the spring, we felt that in order to have students feel safe, we were willing to sacrifice those freedoms and those liberties for people's sense of security.

JC: But she says a policy of zero tolerance is an unreasonable trade-off.

Gina Healy: I think that the consequence needs to match the infraction. And I think that to say we're going to have zero tolerance, and it's going to be across the board, and there's no discretion, is too simplistic an answer for the complicated work of raising kids.

JC: That work, of course, is even more complicated now especially with parents and students trying to put last year's events behind them.

Michael Welch: My sense is that there's a very short memory to this, and that is worrisome to me, because this will happen again. This is not something that's going away.