Schools work to prevent violence

Published 12:00 am Saturday, April 22, 2000

American schools saw more than their share of tragedies in 1999, and one name brings those horrific events together with more force than any other – Columbine.

Saturday, April 22, 2000

American schools saw more than their share of tragedies in 1999, and one name brings those horrific events together with more force than any other – Columbine.

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Littleton, Colo., April 20, 1999 - a date and a tragedy no one will soon forget.

The lessons learned after the two teenagers walked into the high school and killed 12 of their fellow classmates and one teacher are with every administrator, teacher and parent who wants to make sure a similar tragedy never touches their children, said Joe Smith, Chesapeake High School principal.

"I think all schools are more aware," Smith said. "I don’t think they’ll ever ease up again."

But living in fear that a student will one day walk the halls with a rifle will only harm the educational process. There’s no way to predict what the next day will bring, Smith said.

"I don’t think we should be held hostage by wackos," he said. "We need to function and have school. I’ve had parents call and ask if I think their children will be safe at school on the Columbine anniversary. I can’t tell you that there will be no car wrecks, storms or tornadoes. We just have to be able to live, go to work and school and not let fear take us hostage."

The growing violence among children and teens is something school officials and community members must deal with now, Smith said.

"Our young people are growing up in a totally different society," he said. "There are so many things they are faced with. I’m not scared for me, I’m scared for the kids."

Columbine was unthinkable –  the safe, suburban area, the upper-middle-class district, the caring students and faculty all combined to make the events hit that much closer to home. It could happen anywhere, South Point Middle School student Jonathan Hudnell said. It could happen here.

"No, I don’t feel safe in school anymore," the eighth-grader said. "Things happen almost every day. People will threaten you or they will say they have a knife or a gun in their backpack and sometimes you think they’re serious, that they do have it."

With hunting as a favorite pastime in many counties, including Lawrence County, access to guns is not a problem, either, Hudnell added.

"So many kids’ parents and even their grandparents have guns that they can get to," he said. "It’d be easy to bring one into school."

Sixth-grader Aaron Adkins agreed – more needs to be done.

"They should set up metal detectors or something to make it harder to bring guns to school," Adkins said. "It could happen here any day."

Perhaps the best way to prevent a Columbine-like incident in Lawrence County is for school officials and community members to take precautions and realize there is a problem, Smith said.

"A lot of schools have the security cameras," Smith said. "The county emergency response plan is in each school, district and building. It’s never going to be complete. We’ll keep looking at it and trying to improve it."

Fairland School District recently installed security cameras at the entrances and exits of all three of its district schools, said Ken Ratliff, district administrative assistant and technology coordinator.

The cameras are only one part of the district’s safe schools plan, Ratliff said.

"Armstrong Cable is providing us with a cable access channel that has allowed us to advertise our safe school helpline, which is a service where the parents or community members can anonymously report any threat of violence, sexual harassment, drug abuse or anything that could be a threat to the safety of our kids," he said.

The district is also looking into purchasing hand-held, two-way radios for certain personnel so that if the school ever needs to be evacuated, those trapped inside would still be able to communicate, Ratliff said.

"We’ll also have hand-held metal detectors for the principals in place this coming school year," he said. "And more than ever, we’ve asked for service from local law enforcement to monitor the buildings periodically. They’ve done a great job with that. We also have brought drug dogs randomly."

The school district also offers free drug testing by parental request, and has hired a social worker, Ratliff added.

"We’re trying to create an environment where kids who feel threatened, feel comfortable reporting it," he said.

Although this use of technology and support services to incorporate security into the schools has always been discussed in the school systems, Ratliff doesn’t think Fairland would be as far along as it is if it hadn’t have been for the Columbine incident.

"Certain tragedies like Columbine have kind of opened our eyes and spurred us along," Ratliff said. "You see that it happens in some of these other places and we’re taking steps and measures to possibly head that off. We feel we are making progress and we’re constantly evaluating things we have in the plan and trying to improve it.

"We’ve got to make every effort to prevent something like Columbine happening at our school. We can’t sit back and think it won’t happen here. It is a possibility."

And as more ways to help protect the children become available, school districts will incorporate them into their plans, Ratliff said.

"I don’t think (the image of Columbine) is fading away," he said. "People are still very conscious of safety issues and the monitoring and improving of safety issues. Probably, before it happened, these issues might have been on the back burner. But there are still a lot of people thinking about it. They might not be in the initial rush, but I don’t think it will ever escape the minds of teachers, administrators and students."

Another solution could be to ensure the students understand they can come to teachers and administrators and talk about their concerns. The students need to feel more like they can report possible incidents without repercussions, said teacher John Hill, a 14-year veteran educator.

"I think that, since Columbine happened, the administrations have taken steps to ensure safety in the schools, but it’s impossible to know all the necessary steps to take. I think they have done the best job possible," Hill said. "The kids here know if they hear anything suspicious they can talk to teachers and faculty members about it, and that’s an important part of the process. They need to feel that way."

Short of adding metal detectors and armed guards – turning the buildings into constant reminders of the threat of violent acts –  the schools are working together, talking about what works and what doesn’t and making schools safe places to learn and grow, he added.

"It’s on everyone’s mind and the administration has worked very hard to make everyone feel safe," he said.