What with intrusive random searches, zero tolerance, drug-sniffing dogs, surveillance cameras, metal detectors, mandatory uniforms and on-site armed police officers, the schoolhouse these days is looking more and more like the jailhouse.

All of this follows, of course, in the wake of the shooting rampage at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., last spring. It was tragic enough that, in this incident and several other school shootings in the past two years, 26 students were deprived of their lives. It compounds the tragedy, though, when these incidents are used to justify depriving millions of students of their rights.

In the post-Littleton backlash, schools have gone crazy, expelling or suspending children for such “dangerous” behavior as dyeing their hair blue, having body piercings or tattoos, wearing the Star of David on a necklace (supposedly it is some sort of “gang symbol”), or wearing a T-shirt bearing the name of that other notorious gang, the Vegans. Worse yet, some students have been punished merely for daring to criticize their schools for punishing classmates who have worn such threatening items. Of course, school safety should be a top priority. But safety and civil liberties are not mutually exclusive. And, just as adults are entitled to both safety and liberty, the same is true of our nation s youth.

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The media s sensationalized coverage of school violence has helped whip up exaggerated fears, which in turn spur officials to overreact, treating all students like potential perpetrators or victims of mass murder. Newsworthy as the Columbine and other school shootings are, they are not, symptomatic of a nationwide trend. To the contrary, the many recent studies of school violence consistently document declines. Consider, for example, a recent report by the Justice Policy Institute, whose title tells it all: School House Hype: School Shootings and the Real Risks Kids Face in America.

This report shows that, between 1992 and 1995, there were an average of 42 violent deaths per year in schools; in contrast, during the last three years, that number dropped to 33. This study further shows, sadly, that at least 2,000 children per year are killed by violence in their own homes, at the hands of their own parents or guardians. That is the equivalent of one Columbine every three days.

Far from addressing the real problems of violence for our nation s youth, though, public policy has been targeting schools, no doubt driven at least in part by media hype. In addition to generating unfounded fears that it could happen anywhere, the distorted media coverage tends to propel panic about all teenagers as potential terrorists.

It is past time for parents and students to turn the tables and identify the schools that endanger students rights. In addition to the danger signs that I have already mentioned, here are some other warning signals of schools that are hazardous for human rights:

+ random searches of students lockers.

+ requiring that students backpacks be transparent.

+ censorship of school newspapers and/or yearbooks.

+ attempts to regulate off-campus behavior.

+ school-sponsored religious exercises.

There are many threats facing this nation’s children and youth, however, as the risk of school-associated violent death is overblown, we are witnessing a tragic misdirection of attention and resources. Perhaps when school officials find themselves on the other end of the scrutiny, schools will start to look less like jailhouses and more like the safe havens they were meant to be.

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