Saved by the Bell?

"It's pretty sad; that's the bottom line," says Dale Yeager, noted criminal analyst and CEO of SERAPH Inc.

The state of school safety in this country is an issue this long-time researcher and profiler knows something about. Commissioned by select members of Congress to research the state of school safety in America, Yeager and his team at SERAPH have spent time in more than 20,000 public schools nationwide, training and collecting data.

Each year, they visit approximately 200 school districts, surveying and teaching administrators, educators and other personnel about school safety issues. This team assesses trends not addressed by the Justice Department, such as sexual assault by teachers.

"The State of School Safety in American Schools" version released this year includes management assessments of more than 1,200 teachers, 320 administrators and 925 law enforcement officers in rural, suburban and urban districts across America.

Get me to the school on time

"Truancy is the root of all school safety problems," Yeager says. "This is the frustration I hear from police departments: 'I know these kids are out running around. My people see them every day.' "

Getting a handle on truancy is a job that must be undertaken by all parties involved, including and not limited to the schools, police, social services, etc. Two problems will occur, Yeager emphasizes, when there is not a truancy enforcement program in schools.

First, there is a greater chance of gang activity. "Kids out running the streets are more likely to be recruited by gangs," he says. "And that certainly becomes a law enforcement problem."

Second, as educators, schools will find themselves not in compliance with the "No Child Left Behind" initiative, which by law requires schools to track lateness and absenteeism for every student from grades kindergarten through 12. The problem with this, Yeager points out, is schools are in a position to lose their federal funding if this happens.

"Ultimately, law enforcement ends up being the cleanup crew for the lack of attention schools pay to truancy," he says. "The culprits are the school districts, local courts, social service agencies and political people in that community who don't understand truancy is not an urban problem — it's an everybody problem."

Truancy, he adds, feeds into the arena of young sexual predators, sex crimes, gang activity, negative cliques and all the problems associated with them.

"Give me a break." That's what kids want these days. And, according to Yeager, school officials and social workers are more than willing to give them one.

"Here's another problem — the unbalanced disciplinary system in a lot of schools," he says. "Where we see that affecting kids is with probation, which is certainly a law enforcement issue."

Having help in breaking probation only leads a kid to believe that no law pertains to him.

They're hitting the sheets

"Police departments need to come to terms with sex crimes," Yeager says. "More and more sexual assault and paraphelia is happening with children. We're seeing sex aggression in 6/7-year-old kids."

Dysfunctional families, he explains, have a severe amount of sexual dysfunction. If children grow up around behaviors like that, they will model what they see.

Gang initiations for females have become gang rape. Female cliques have taken to hazing, which is very violent, and homosexual, in nature. "This is something, that if police departments don't know how to handle correctly and understand, they will be in a political soup they can't climb out of," Yeager explains.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls the increasing number of STDs in students an epidemic. Yeager's group credits the increase to behaviors such as multiple sex partners, the popularity of oral sex in middle schools and increase of students engaged in same-sex relationships.

"You can't just say this stuff doesn't happen," he stresses. "It does and is. Oral sex has become like changing your socks. We have yet to be in a middle school that didn't have huge problems with this."

Online pornography is yet another sexual trend found among school children and has fueled a new generation of paraphelia.

Children, at younger ages, are being exposed and introduced to pornography they would never had access to 10 years ago. "A lot of kids are addicted to online pornography," says Yeager. "With it, there is no delay. A child could sit in front of a computer for literally 8 hours and never see the same person twice."

As far as law enforcement is concerned, this is generally a touchy subject, the same as it is with parents or anyone who does not live in the mind of a teenager in 2006.

"Kids shouldn't have sex," says Yeager. "They can't get to school on time. They can't find their lockers. They can't remember their combinations, but somehow they are going to be responsible with sex? When kids have sex, you're looking at date rape, pregnancy, STDs, and girls who have sex with older men, which is common, have higher rates of poverty and being a drop out."

If law enforcement does not understand the full extent of sexual aggression among children, it will not be able to investigate, and more importantly, predict and prevent it.

Each morning, the SERAPH staff sits around a table and fields questions from superintendents, detectives, police officers, school resource officers (SROs) and teachers about just this topic. "It's like a phone bank," says Yeager. "Cops over and over are asking, 'Well, what's that?' They don't know the sex connection between all these issues."

Keep your cool

"At Columbine, 38 percent of the teachers abandoned the students and ran out of the building," says Yeager. "On 9/11, in southern Connecticut, northern New Jersey and the suburbs of New York State, 60 percent of the adult staff of all schools left without permission that day and abandoned the kids."

Controlling individual panic factors is a skill all law enforcement officers must have. It's a learned trait, for sure, says Yeager. Police departments must have an active role when schools develop emergency plans, helping them make effective exit routes, etc. However, "here's the problem," he explains. "When in the middle of an emergency, you need to know how to control your heart rate, blood pressure, because those things affect your ability to move and make cognitive decisions. A plan is only as good as the people who execute it."

This educator notes that regularly he sees officers not trained on managing their physical bodies during an emergency. The proof, he says, is in the firearms' accuracy studies. In police departments, the hit ratio is 5 to 6 percent, while in the federal sector, it is 80 percent. The difference? "They train their eyes and breathing," says Yeager. With the local agencies, "an officer's heart rate is at more than 140 beats per second; they've lost their fine motor skills."

School safety is about the students, yes, but it is also about the law enforcement officers who watch over them. In an emergency, Yeager explains an officer will need to do three things.

The first is control his biology to be functioning correctly and at full power during the emergency. Second, an officer must know how to control groups of people, specifically children, "because kids panic differently," he adds. Third, is the ability to make critical decisions in an instant. "An emergency is different than getting shot at," says Yeager. "It is dealing with large groups of people, angry parents, and there are a lot of skills which need to be developed to make sure you can do that correctly."

Skills for a solution

"There is a huge learning gap in law enforcement when it comes to adolescent aggression," Yeager says. "We're not here to reinvent the wheel. We're not here to tell you what you're doing is wrong. We're here to take your experiences and make sense out of them, and put a system together you can use simply and easily every day to predict and prevent."

There will always be resistance to change and growth, he admits. "You have certain people in education who are scared of anything that reeks of violence, so they put their heads in the sand."

Bringing together local law enforcement, the probation department, social services, court system, school board, principal, etc. to establish a school safety, truancy project is a daunting task. And getting people to show up is half the battle. Yeager has a way to ensure this happens. Three hundred-twenty school districts have tried and succeeded with his method.

The plan is simple. Invite all parties involved to a press conference on the new initiative in school safety. Then, write a news release mentioning all these specific sectors will be represented. "What you're using is peer pressure, or social norming to get them there, and guess what?" says Yeager. "It always works."

Training educators and law enforcement, not just detectives, but the patrol officers to profile students, is essential. This is the key to prediction and prevention, Yeager says. "You can tell if someone's carrying a weapon, where he's carrying it and what kind of weapon it is just by looking at him," he says. "Law enforcement generally reacts to a problem. That's why cops have to go through special training to become detectives. They need to learn to interrogate and investigate."

Conflict resolution

No school will be safe if there is an argument on who is in charge of making it so.

"For about every five schools, we see at least one bad relationship with law enforcement," Yeager notes. "Usually, though, the local police departments and school districts have a relatively good relationship because the district will see the police as its last resort to solving a problem."

The conflict, he says, comes mainly between the local police and its respective sheriff's department. The school doesn't understand the politics involved in law enforcement departments, and may obtain its SROs from the police rather than the sheriff's department, and who gets the money makes the tension tighter.

"We're seeing this over and over again," says Yeager. "This is where professionalism as law enforcement professionals has to take precedence." The truancy project, he says, is a plus for everyone involved. "Everybody gets equal credit. It's a win-win situation."

"The State of School Safety in American Schools" has been rewritten from its original technical version into a reader-friendly format, so the information can be easily accessed and discussed by anyone, not just the research professional. Yeager would like to see the information go nationwide to "clue in" the supportive communities such as law enforcement, educators and parents about what is really happening in schools today. Visit www.seraph.net to view the report.

"We better wake up in this country because we have a juvenile crime problem that's out of control."

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