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As violence rises, schools move to create safe havens Niagara Falls High was built with safety as one key goal

The Buffalo School District isn't the only one in Western New York that struggles with violence.

All districts in the region need to be prepared for fights and more serious incidents, from both within and outside school buildings, as a recent incident at Niagara-Wheatfield High School points out.

A student tried to sicken a principal by pouring perfume in his drink.

Bad behavior "is about relationships," Niagara-Wheatfield Superintendent Judith Howard said. "Kids are human and don't know what to do with their emotions. Some have serious home issues."

The challenge is greatest in the region's two largest cities, Buffalo and Niagara Falls, where poverty and guns have become an all-too-common reality.

"It's not unusual for someone under 18 to have a gun [in Niagara Falls]", city police Detective Capt. Ernest Palmer said recently. "Rarely a day goes by that shots aren't fired on someone. It becomes a way of life on the streets.

"That's unfortunate, because it becomes lethal in untrained and immature hands. A lot of young people can't fathom the danger and power of a gun."

Since the Columbine shootings in 1999, when two heavily armed students killed 13 people in a Colorado high school, districts across the nation have taken a number of steps to protect students.

They've arrived in a climate of tension.

Peter Smolinski, who teaches chemistry at Buffalo's Grover Cleveland High School, said that he's been a teacher for the past 18 years and has seen "much more aggressive behavior now."

Mark Laurrie, Niagara Falls High School's chief educational administrator, said the complexity of the problems are a lot different today.

"Things that I hear students talking about, outside the school, have become far more violent, especially regarding weapons -- and this is my 21st year," Laurrie said.

"I think it's a sense of hopelessness," he said. "Kids don't see opportunities for good jobs, and they see other kids taking the easy way out through drugs. Kids are angrier than they've ever been. They see and hear it on television and movies, and the style is anger and revenge. Without a safe system [in the school], they repeat what they see."

>Creating a safe haven

Last October, two Niagara Falls High School teachers were injured when they stepped in to break up a fight among three girls and bore the brunt of the blows. Both teachers were back in school the next day. Two of the girls, both age 15, were arrested on assault charges.

"The message has to go out to everyone that our schools are safe havens, because what we're seeing is more violence in society, and it's spilling over from the streets and into the schools," Buffalo Teachers Federation President Phil Rumore told a judge during a sentencing hearing for a girl charged with assaulting a Lafayette High School teacher last year.

Niagara Falls High School has looked to create a safe haven in a troubled city. Per capita income is about $17,000 in Niagara Falls, and 81 percent of the families are living on some kind of government assistance, Superintendent Carmen A. Granto said.

Granto said a year was spent designing the new city high school, which opened in 2000.

The 21st century school bears little resemblance to the high school most adults attended.

Police are a presence in the school and wear loaded handguns as they walk the halls.

A high-tech "control room" employs eight safety officers who watch 62 cameras, mounted both inside and outside the school, with staff watching the school until 10 p.m. and on Saturdays. Cameras constantly monitor the parking lot and can zoom in.

In the security room, there is a red phone for emergencies. The phone is for staff to call, and help will come immediately.

Laurrie wears a walkie-talkie so he's available at all times in the 480,000-square-foot high school, which educates 2,300 students.

Regular drug tests are required for all employees. The test is a "hair follicle test," so nothing can be masked.

All students must scan an identification card to enter school. When a student enters late, his or her name goes directly to the teacher's computer. Teachers have laptops that include the names and photos of their students.

Laurrie said all city schools, even elementary schools, are in lock down all the time to prevent people from entering without permission.

An off-site alternative school handles disruptive students.

Despite the tight security, Niagara Falls educators want students to feel comfortable and safe.

At the high school, windows are designed to make the school feel open. The school is divided into four houses to make things more personal with principals, counselors and deans. Teachers have students for two full years in ninth and 10th grade so they get to know their students better and can build relationships.

"We want it to be that we know the students and they feel they can trust us," Granto said. "That's critical. We have a lot of students who will tip us off when something is going on."

Laurrie agreed. He said that as he walks down the hall, he makes an effort to look each student in the eye and greet each one by name. "That's what we pride ourselves on, that a dean or an administrator or a counselor knows every one of the kids in the school," Laurrie said. "Every kid has to have a solid one-on-one relationship with at least one adult in the school. That's what we push. Someone in the school should know that kid."

>An alternative approach

Laurrie said the need for added security and cameras was "unfortunate but absolutely necessary."

Granto said police will tip off the school when something from the streets may spill over into the school.

"Some kids are not going to come here to learn," the superintendent said. "If you want to come in here like a gangster, then you're not coming in here. We have to provide you with an education, but you're not going to wreck it for the others."

Alternative School Principal Thomas B. Stack said that's exactly the type of student handled in his school, run by the Orleans-Niagara Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

The Alternative School on Ninth Street, next to the Niagara Falls Housing Authority, offers alternative education to 49 children in grades seven to 12. The school is designed to meet the special needs of these children.

"We do a lot of things differently," Stack said. "First off in the morning, kids go through a screening process. They are basically searched and go through a metal wand for safety reasons. We also do things different academically. Our goal is to get kids back into their traditional school.

"We put a couple of steps in place. We require 98 percent attendance. We also do community service, 15 to 30 hours with a nonprofit [churches, housing authority, soup kitchen, Salvation Army], and they have to carry a 70 average and pass all four subjects."

Stack said a lot of the students are coming from low socioeconomic backgrounds with a lot of violence, drugs and alcohol abuse. The school has an alcohol counselor who works with both students and their families. He said half of the students in the school are on probation, and a probation officer comes to the school once a week for on-site visits and counseling.

"We are the last line of defense for some of these students," Stack said. "Here there's more structure, smaller class sizes, a little more intimate of a setting, and they are able to graduate and succeed."

Robert Cluckey, director of special education and alternative education, said that for students to succeed, they need to make a personal connection with adults.

"For a kid in a large high school who is struggling with supports at home, it can be difficult," Cluckey said. "Here they can't avoid it."

Cluckey said the staff gets to know these kids and also know what triggers both positive and negative reactions. He said when kids start to lose it, there's a whole staff that's in tune with it and can lessen the anger.

"Something an alternative school can do is break the predictable pattern of how adults react," he said. "Kids are highly intuitive and know if adults care about them or not. They'll do everything they can to prove that no one cares about them, but we stay more persistent than they are."

Laurrie said he wants the high school to be viewed as a family.

"A team approach is working," he said. "We want to keep the school safe, but our primary mission is for students to pass five Regents [exams] at 65 or above so they can move on to the next level."

The superintendent agreed.

"We're the safety net," Granto said. "We're the last ones in society to tell them, 'You work hard, you behave, it pays off.' "


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