Editorial: The fourth 'R' — respect

Published 12:00 am Friday, December 8, 2006

The minor increase in school violence reflected in a state report last week may cause only vague concern by itself, but recent incidents reported here in Rowan-Salisbury schools bring immediacy to the issue. Public schools — high schools in particular — need family and community reinforcement to convince students they’re serious about maintaining a crime-free environment. Or else.

North Carolina schools reported nearly 11,000 incidents of crime and violence in 2005-06, correlating to 7.9 acts per 1,000 students. That’s up from a rate of 7.49 per 1,000 the previous year. Rowan-Salisbury Schools are happy to be below average in this category; the system has a rate of 5.7 per 1,000, or a total of 118 incidents.

A minority of cases involve physical attacks. Some 93 percent of the offenses statewide fell into four categories: possession of a controlled substance, 4,427; possession of a weapon excluding guns and explosives, 3,845; possession of an alcoholic beverage, 1,053; and assault on school personnel not resulting in serious injury, 862. (The number that did result in serious injury was 176, and offenses involving firearms or powerful explosives totalled 128.)

As state education leaders were quick to point out Thursday, school is still one of the safest places young people can go. National news reports may focus on the worst of the worst, like schoolhouse shootings and Columbine-like plots, but that kind of violence is on the decline, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.

The real danger is the steady erosion of student respect for school authority figures and each other, an erosion that parents do little to discourage. Students get into disagreements that escalate, and adults who intervene are as apt to get hit as anyone else. Then an angry parent shows up at the schoolhouse door — not to discipline the child, but to challenge school officials’ handling of the case. Parents need to investigate claims against their children, but public confrontations with school officials undermine everyone’s authority — from gullible parents to maligned administrators — and set children up for a lifetime of problems with authority.

State officials say the increase indicated in the report could reflect better reporting, and schools should keep it up. To protect a school’s image, a principal might be tempted to avoid filing police reports. But any criminal incident that’s allowed to slide by without involving police sends a message to students: They can get away with it. What’s to prevent them breaking the rules again?

The prosecution earlier this year of teachers who helped students break the law shows the respect message needs reinforcement all around. One teacher allowed students to smoke pot in the parking lot; another gave students alcohol on prom night. They’re out of here.

Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic may provide the basic foundation for education, but respect is the base on which people build good lives. The best character education young people can get this area is swift, punitive action when they step over the line — with parents backing up school officials all the way.