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Schools to battle violence

Lawrence County school officials know ignoring the rising trend of violence in schools will not make that worry fade away.

Wednesday, August 25, 1999

Lawrence County school officials know ignoring the rising trend of violence in schools will not make that worry fade away. That’s why more than 80 teachers, board of education members and superintendents attended a crisis management seminar at the Grandview Inn Tuesday.

The victim advocate and investigator for the Special Investigations Unit of the Ohio Attorney General’s Bureau of Criminal Identification and Investigation, Cindy Reagan Kuhr, challenged local school officials to take back their schools and to come up with a plan to not only prevent a disaster at their schools, but also to deal with that crisis correctly if something like the recent incident at Columbine High School would happen here.

The Fairland School District, like many others in the county, has been working diligently this summer to improve safety measures in its schools, said Ken Ratliff, district administrative assistant.

"We have safety plans in place, and what we get here at the seminar are good ideas we can use to tweak those plans," Ratliff said. "We can make them better for the climate we have right now."

And even the Lawrence County Early Childhood Center had a representative at the seminar. Director Linda Seachrist said her children were too small to bring guns into the school, but there might be an adult who would.

"What we have set up in the school is an emergency procedure in how we would respond – what emergency numbers would we call," Ms. Seachrist said. "We also have an emergency evacuation procedure in place."

The school also only has one way for visitors to enter and leave the building, and everyone must sign in, state his purpose for being there and wear a badge, she added.

"We do this for the protection of our children and the adults who work in our building," Ms. Seachrist said. "I think we have a situation in society where you can’t always be sure nothing will happen. We have children who might be involved in domestic situations at home, or their parents could be going through a divorce or custody battle. Our procedures are a way of monitoring and identifying a person or family member that could be there to do harm to the child."

But all the planning in the world might not be enough to prevent a crisis in a local school, said Iva Jean Willis, Fairland Board of Education member.

"You just have to hope for the best," Mrs. Willis said. "You hope you can reach kids that are having problems, but kids just won’t tell you if they’re having problems. But this is just something you have to do."

One way to prevent school tragedies is to open up communication lines between students and adults, Ms. Kuhr said.

Anonymous hotlines or letting students know they can go to certain adults to voice anonymous concerns might help the school district know when there might be a problem, she said.

South Point School District was the first in the county to offer an anonymous telephone report system, said Rick Waggoner, district superintendent.

And the school district will continue to find ways to improve safety in its schools, Waggoner added.

"We’re checking all doors to make sure they would operate in a lockdown situation," he said. "We’ve made the principals aware of alternate routes out of the building. We allow book bags into the school, but students must keep them in lockers. And we had a metal detector at prom last year. The parents clapped for it. They thought it was an excellent idea."

Although most schools are looking into keeping doors locked and requiring visitors to sign in at the office, not all officials think limiting backpacks in classrooms will reduce threats to children.

"Requiring clear book bags wouldn’t make any difference," said Joe Smith, Chesapeake High School principal. "A student could slip something between two books."

What will make a difference is noticing the signs of troubled youths and trying to help them before the situation gets out of hand, Ms. Kuhr said.

At the seminar, Ms. Kuhr handed out worksheets that listed some generic clues that might help educators identify troubled students.

School officials should be on the lookout for children who display social isolation tendencies, who are constantly depressed or angry, make specific threats, have poor impulse control, defy authority, are extremely self-centered, obsessed with weapons or violence and death, have been exposed to violence, are chronically truant, display extreme mood swings or use drugs, she said.

"This is not to say that children who display one of these symptoms will come to school and pull out a gun, but these are indicators that the children are troubled," Ms. Kuhr said.

And it is the school’s responsibility to help these troubled children. By identifying those who need help quickly, educators can see that they receive the proper attention and care before the problem escalates, Ms. Kuhr added.

Some of the ways educators can prevent school violence include identifying and assessing troubled youths, but also setting school policies and procedures, making students aware of adult confidants they can go to in private, setting up a peer listeners group, identifying school-based and neighborhood-based programs and getting the parents involved with their children’s education, she said.

"Having one, two or three individuals in the school that students know they can go to to make anonymous reports might help the schools be proactive in prevention," Ms. Kuhr said. "It might help prevent those who are thinking of causing trouble in schools."

Ms. Kuhr and Ellen Alheim, who is trained in community crisis response and currently serving as special services coordinator for the Newark City Law Director’s Office, spoke at this seminar in response to a request by judges Richard Walton, Frank McCown and David Payne.

The judges recently asked Lawrence County Educational Service Center director Harold Shafer what the county court system could do to help in preventing school crimes, McCown said.

"Given what’s happened in the country, we asked ourselves how can we work with the boards of education to be proactive," he said. "We asked ourselves how can we prevent a situation of this nature and how would we react if these situations occurred."