School safety is a community effort

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

School safety has once again captured headlines in the national, regional and local news media. School shootings in Pennsylvania and Colorado were followed by an incident involving a student and a gun at a middle school in Joplin. Parents, students, school officials and communities across the United States are all asking the same question: "How can we make sure our students and our schools are safe?"

This week, the Missouri School Boards Association and the Missouri Department of Public Safety are partnering to present a web-based telecast for Missouri schools and local First Responders. The Oct. 19 forum will discuss school safety in Missouri.

Nationally, a Conference on School Safety, sponsored by the White House, convened on Oct. 3 in Chevy Chase, Md., in the wake of the most recent school shootings. The meeting, held at the National 4-H Youth Conference Center, brought together the nation's leading experts on school safety issues to discuss how federal, state and local governments could work with schools, communities and families to ensure that schools are safe places for students to learn. This conference highlighted the best practices used to safeguard schools from internal and external threats of violence and focused on lessons learned from prior incidents of school violence.

Laura Bush spoke at the Conference on School Safety and offered her thoughts on school violence. "Acts of school violence are not isolated incidents," said Mrs. Bush. "Reports of one school shooting can disturb children and teachers in classrooms around the country. Children can't learn if they're worried about their safety."

In reading various reports and reviewing expert advice for safer schools, there are several shared philosophies that seem to target violence in schools and there are several common denominators found when violence erupts in a school setting. Several of these issues are ones we believe our school districts must look at when revising their school safety plans.

1. Have a plan in place. Preparedness plans are essential to addressing school safety issues. It's important that a district limit access to school buildings, have a system in place to identify strangers from the moment they arrive on campus and a response plan that is easily engaged and followed. Preparedness plans, including intruder drills, actually make students feel safer, because they know the district is able to respond quickly in times of emergency.

2. Address bullying in school. Students who resort to violence often have been the target of school bullies. Bullying should not be tolerated in our schools. It should be reported and dealt with quickly and severely.

3. Take all threats seriously. Make sure students know how to report threats to school officials and make sure students understand the consequences of making such threats. Those providing information about other students need to know their identities will be protected. Anonymous tip lines are important, and teachers should be trained to watch for suspicious behavior and encourage students to speak up about anything they view as suspicious or threatening. Every report should be treated seriously. When students plot violence, they almost always brag about it to someone first.

4. Parents must stay involved in their students' lives. In each case of student violence, law enforcement officials have gone into the perpetrator's home and found caches of weapons or elaborate plans to create bombs. The guns often belong to parents and are too easily accessible to their children. If you have guns in your home, lock them in a gun safe and keep the combination a secret.

5. Parents must be willing to talk to children about their fears. It's up to us, as adults, to calm our children's worries. "I urge all adults across the country to take their responsibility to children - their own children and their community's children - seriously," said Mrs. Bush in her speech at the Conference on School Safety. "With time and attention, adults will keep children safe in our nation's schools and build a more peaceful society for our country."

Let's follow the First Lady's advice and pledge to do everything in our power, as adults, to keep our local children safe. Stay involved and support your local school districts in their efforts to make schools a safe haven.