Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

No to fortress schools

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In 1978, a student walked into a St. James high school carrying a duffel bag. He entered a classroom, pulled out a sawed-off shotgun and fatally shot another 16-year-old student, apparently because he had mocked his favourite band, Kiss. The killer was later acquitted at trial by reason of insanity.

The incident shocked a city that was still largely immune to the kind of violence that plagued schools in the United States, where students have been carrying guns and killing people since at least 1853, when a youngster bought a pistol before going to school and shooting the principal, according to a list of American school shootings posted on Wikipedia.

School officials in Manitoba did not immediately impose new safety rules following the 1978 slaying, but they have slowly and steadily contemplated ways to make classrooms safer without also turning them into jail cells with armed guards at every door.

The slaughter at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn., however, the latest in a series of mass shootings in American educational institutes, has again focused the mind on student safety. The incident was the most shocking in recent American history, mainly because of the ages of the student victims -- just six and seven -- and the way the killer gained access to a locked school by shooting his way inside.

Americans are now trapped in a debate between those who want to arm teachers and post security guards at every door, and others who want to impose tougher controls on weapons.

Canadians so far have largely avoided the temptation to turn schools into armed and armoured fortresses, but there are already moves in some provinces to dramatically boost security.

Ontario, for example, plans to spend $10 million on a variety of security measures, including surveillance cameras and door security systems, the kind of security that might be found at a military base or a nuclear plant.

The fear, of course, is that locked doors and stringent security will sap the very idea of a school as safe and welcoming place, where kids can come and go easily and without the feeling they are constantly being watched and scrutinized.

Some critics say too much security will be counter-productive because it will make kids question their safety, rather than reassure them they are protected.

There are no easy answers to the problem of school safety, of which shootings are merely the most dramatic and threatening. Bullying, intimidation, gang violence, drug dealing and other threats are far more common and should be the focus of any safety policy.

In Manitoba, individual schools and divisions have assessed their risks based on their own unique experiences. Schools in high-crime areas, for example, may see a need to lock doors and post monitors, while others can cope with simpler measures.

Ultimately, school staff need to know their students and their neighbourhood. Kids with problems need to be identified and helped, while students should be encouraged to report threatening behaviour.

None of this, however, not locked doors and security cameras, not good intelligence on the student body, and probably not even armed guards, would have prevented the tragedy at Newtown. There, a disturbed person, for reasons that will probably never be clear, devised a plan to slaughter innocent children and anyone who got in his way.

A determined mad man armed to the teeth is tough to defend against, but the risk of such an attack should not form the basis for security in schools, or movie theatres and churches, for that matter.

Manitoba's Education Department has rightly avoided the temptation to respond immediately to the security problem following the glare of media scrutiny, but it's also fair to say that some of our innocence has been lost in the wake of numerous school shootings in the world.

The goal moving forward should be to provide the best security in ways that don't undermine the innocence of youth.

Editorials are the consensus view of the Winnipeg Free Press’ editorial board, comprising Catherine Mitchell, David O’Brien, Shannon Sampert, and Paul Samyn.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 29, 2012 A16

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