Urbana schools are facing serious challenges.

Public schools are supposed to provide safe, nurturing environments where children have a great opportunity to learn.

But a report given last week to the Urbana School Board by two school resource officers suggests that Urbana’s high school and middle school are falling considerably short on that standard.

If school atmosphere issues are not bad enough, the state board of education recently released school report cards showing stunningly low student performance.

What came first — the chicken or the egg?

Is student misbehavior driving poor student performance? Or is student frustration over educational shortcomings driving the misconduct?

There’s no clear answer. But both problems send a clear message to parents who have the ability to make education-related choices.

In her presentation, school resource officer Michelle Robinson emphasized the news she brought to the board was bad, but that it had been worse in the past.

Reporting that there were 50 fights in Urbana Middle School during the first semester, Robinson said those were “very big improvements” over previous fights that turned into “mob action.”

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“This year, (students) are not jumping in. So our fights are one on one. We can get them broken up quickly compared to last year, when it was hard to do,” she said.

One could call that “improvement.” One could also call that defining deviance down.

Urbana High School resource officer Chad Burnett brought similar news. There were 57 fights the first semester at UHS — 41 physical and 16 verbal. He said police were called on two occasions.

The discord at UHS represents the usual story — most of the students behave but a “bunch of kids who don’t want to stay in class, and that becomes a problem.”

It’s become an anathema in certain circles to talk about taking strong, effective measures to punish and/or discourage misconduct. But the alternative to cracking down on misbehavior is the chaos that undermines students’ education as well as their safety.

School officials in Champaign and Urbana have previously acknowledged their deepest safety concerns by installing metal detectors in the schools to identify anyone carrying a firearm. Their fears are not exaggerations, and that’s another indictment of the culture of violence reflected in the endless series of local shooting incidents.

Burnett said but for the presence of the metal detectors, “I think we’d have several guns in the building already.” Chew on that for a while.

Circumstances like this are a death knell for any school confronting these problems, maybe not immediately, but soon enough. No parent who has a choice will tolerate these conditions for long.

Board members and school officials must realize that and take the strong action needed to ensure the education and personal safety of those who follow the rules is not compromised by those who don’t.

Jim Dey, a member of The News-Gazette staff, can be reached at jdey@news-gazette.com or 217-393-8251.

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