Safe-Schools Conference Tackles Many Issues

By Marianne D. Hurst — November 05, 2003 3 min read
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About 1,200 educators crowded the halls of the Omni Shoreham Hotel here last week for the third annual Safe and Drug-Free Schools Conference, amid concerns over a perceived recent increase in violent incidents in or near schools.

The conference—which was held a month after a 15-year-old boy in Cold Spring, Minn., fatally shot two classmates in a school building—briefed educators on issues such as raising the profile and effectiveness of school police officers, curbing teenage substance abuse, preventing bullying, addressing student mental- health issues, and increasing the relevance of character education.

“This is a much more diverse audience [this year],” said William Modzeleski, the associate deputy undersecretary for the U.S Department of Education’s office of safe and drug-free schools, which sponsored the conference. “They clearly understand that life has changed and that creating safe schools is very different from what it was 10 years ago.”

The role of schools in dealing with such issues has prompted a number of school officials to seek out policies to improve school performance, communication, and follow-up with law- enforcement agencies. However, Mr. Modzeleski said that the idea that school violence has increased is an unfounded perception raised by individuals outside education.

“Clearly, all of us need to do something to address [school safety],” he said, but he noted that violent incidents that involve students off campus are well beyond educators’ control. There needs to be a community response to violence, not just a school response, he said.

Presenters who have tackled school crisis plans advised educators to work together as a team by fostering relationships and communicating with staff members at all levels, as well as by having well-defined leadership roles, flexible crisis-management plans, and regular student-accountability procedures.

Michael E. Fisher, a 20- year veteran police investigator with the 137,000-student Prince George’s County, Md., school system just outside Washington, presented educators with facts about the evolving role and funding challenges faced by school-based police.

“No conversation can be had about school-based police without discussing the ambiguity of [their] roles,” he said.

Mr. Fisher said schools employ a variety of security personnel, including contract guards, off-duty police officers, full-time unarmed investigators, and armed police officers.

Spotlight on Mental Health

Conference presenters who spoke on student substance abuse and mental-health concerns said that teachers need to be more aware of student symptoms, and also more willing to address them.

Many educators, experts here noted, simply don’t know how to talk about problems such as drug abuse with students and parents, thus compounding what one expert called a “profound lack of understanding” of those issues throughout the nation.

Presenters at several workshops addressed questions from attendees on how to handle parent and community reactions to students in crisis.

“Teachers want to make sure that they’re supported,” said Mary Jo McInerny, a project specialist with the 60,000-student Greenville County school district in South Carolina, who gave a presentation to teachers about the design and implementation of school safety plans. “They want to know that they can do their job, and that they’re safe.”

Brendon M. Barber, a conference speaker who works in student-support services for the 10,200-student Georgetown County, S.C., school system, also outlined the components of a good crisis plan during a presentation.

He acknowledged that events such as the 1999 Columbine High School shootings and the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks have had an impact on the development of school safety plans. But, he said, many school safety issues are not really driven by the perception of increased school violence.

In fact, much of the push to ensure school safety is really a result of the need to increase test scores, Mr. Barber argued, since a safe school environment is conducive to learning.

He added that “the most important deterrent against making a campus a target is adult supervision.”

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