School Climate & Safety

‘Be Alert’ to Keep Schools Safe, Panelists Say

By Mary Ann Zehr — October 17, 2006 4 min read
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Educators, law-enforcement officers, crisis counselors, and students—some from communities that have experienced deadly school shootings—shared their hard-earned lessons and ideas about how to prevent further incidents at a school safety summit last week called by President Bush.

The six-hour meeting at the National 4-H Conference Center here, just outside Washington, featured panels on school violence prevention, preparedness, and recovery. Panelists touched on a wide range of topics, such as the importance of giving young people or teachers a way to report that a student seemed troubled and the need for school officials to improve communications with law-enforcement authorities.

The event’s sponsors, the U.S. departments of Education and Justice, apparently had not selected a panelist to talk specifically about how to keep guns out of the hands of troubled youths or adults.

But Theo Milonopoulos, a sophomore at Stanford University who founded the groups Vox Populi and Kidz Voice-LA with his twin brother, Niko, made sure that the topic of gun control got some play nevertheless.

During an opportunity for the 300 participants to ask questions of a panel moderated by U.S. Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, Mr. Milonopoulos stepped up to the microphone and pointed out that access to guns was “the common denominator in the rash of school shootings.”

What are legislators and the Bush administration doing “to halt the proliferation of weapons?” he asked.

“Kids should not have access to weapons,” answered Mr. Gonzales. He said the Bush administration was addressing the problem by prosecuting criminals who possess guns illegally.

“I truly believe we can’t legislate safety,” added panelist Jeffrey J. Dawsy, the sheriff in Citrus County, Fla., who is involved in efforts to keep schools in his county safe.

Panelists also included experts in school crisis plans and university professors who have studied school shootings.

“Schools are still relatively safe,” said Delbert S. Elliott, the director of the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence. “Children are safer there than in a shopping mall, out in the streets, even in a fast-food place.”

‘The Real Thing’

Fred Wegener, the Park County, Colo., sheriff who headed the response to the school shooting last month in Bailey, Colo., said law-enforcement and school personnel had practiced school lockdown procedures two months before the incident, which he said helped them to respond to the crisis more effectively.

In that Sept. 27 instance, an adult intruder killed a high school girl and himself after taking six female students hostage in an English classroom. (“Hostage-Taking Seen as Difficult to Prevent,” Oct. 4, 2006.)

Mr. Wegener acknowledged the surprise of having to address such violence in his community, a thought that several other people who had lived through school violence also expressed.

Recalling the moment when he learned that a man with a gun had entered Platte Canyon High School, Mr. Wegener said, “I immediately think, ‘It’s a drill, and someone forgot to tell me.’ As I hear the officers and the strain in their voices, I realize it is the real thing.”

The Amish community of Lancaster County, Pa., was not represented at the meeting, which some participants noted was expected, because of the Amish practice of keeping to themselves, in accordance with their religious beliefs. On Oct. 2, a local truck driver laid siege to a one-room schoolhouse there, fatally shooting five girls before killing himself. It was immediately after that incident that President Bush announced plans for last week’s gathering. (“School Shootings in Policy Spotlight,” Oct. 11, 2006.)

“We know also that these sorts of incidents can occur in inner-city America and Amish communities, private schools, public schools,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. “Really, every single community needs to be alert.”

Craig Scott, who was in the library at Columbine High School when two teenage gunmen opened fire on fellow students in the room in April 1999, said he believes schools need to provide “education that touches the heart and helps to build character,” something that he contends has been lost from an earlier era in public education.

Mr. Scott’s sister, Rachel Scott, was among the 12 students and a teacher killed in the Jefferson County, Colo., school by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who then committed suicide.

“The problem with Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold was not the academic education at my school,” said Mr. Scott, who was a student at the time. “The problem was their character.”

‘Incredibly Sad’

During the last 45 minutes of the meeting, President Bush participated in a panel session in which he received a briefing on what had been discussed before his arrival.

In brief remarks, Mr. Bush expressed regret that the school shootings in Colorado, Pennsylvania, and Cazenovia, Wis., where a student killed a principal on Sept. 29, had made it necessary for him to summon a national conference on school safety.

“The violence we’re having in our schools is incredibly sad, and it troubles a lot of folks, and it troubled me and Laura,” said the president, whose wife, Laura Bush, also attended the summit. “Rather than be upset, it’s best to be proactive.”

President Bush stressed the need for law-enforcement officers, educators, and others who work with children and youths across the country to exchange ideas on how best to prevent school violence. He showed particular interest in finding ways to urge more teachers to report warning signs that individual students are troubled as a means of preventing such violence.

The purpose of the conference, the president said, “has got to be so we share information so we can save lives.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 18, 2006 edition of Education Week as ‘Be Alert’ to Keep Schools Safe, Panelists Say

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