October 1999 / School Safety

Question Mark
Ask the Superintendent: School Safety
Superintendent's Column
Peninsula Clarion
D. Peterson

October 1999

QUESTION: With all the coverage of terrible events happening at schools, what are you doing to keep my child safe at school?

This seems to be the million-dollar question this year. There is not a group that I speak to that isn’t concerned about safety in the schools. You are right - there has been lots of coverage of tragic events like Columbine High School and right here in Bethel, Alaska, where a principal and student were killed three years ago. Similarly, we hear a lot more about airplane crashes than we do about car crashes although we know air travel to be statistically safer. Reports of violence in a school receive much more attention and spark fear in all because they involve children.

Unfortunately, we can not guarantee safety at school any more than we can guarantee that nothing bad will happen to you at home or on your way to work tomorrow. We can, and do, take steps to try and minimize the risks. Schools continue to be one of the safest places in our community, but we expect schools to be “exempt” from the problems of society. That isn’t always the case. Schools are a reflection of society and as society changes, so do schools. Fortunately, national declines in fighting and weapon carrying among US adolescents between 1991 and 1997 are encouraging and consistent with declines in homicide, non-fatal victimization, and school crime rates (Journal of American Medical Association, August 4, 1999). Recent events have shown us that school violence can happen anywhere, therefore the discussion about “what if” is important to have.

Frankly, from my perspective as a parent or as the Superintendent, one violent incident in our schools is too many. At the beginning of the year, I challenged all of our employees not to simply strive for safe schools, but to work toward peaceful schools, where students feel comfortable, connected, and where great learning occurs free of prejudice. It’s interesting to note that a couple of years ago when a national reviewer talked to students about how safe they felt in Kenai Peninsula schools, many of the children responded that they knew what to do in an earthquake. The reviewer said that this was the only part of the country he’d heard that response and that our children really seemed quite innocent – that’s the way I’d love to keep things.

We can talk for days, but you probably care more about what we are doing as a school district to help make schools a safer place to be. Here are some things:

  • Reviewing and enforcing procedures on school visitors.
  • Providing assistance and counseling for potentially violent students and an alternative educational setting if necessary.
  • Meeting with law enforcement personnel to discuss necessary support and actions should a critical incident occur.
  • Requiring all schools to follow a District Critical Incident Plan and providing training to administrators, staff, and students. Two main components are “shelter in place” and “evacuate.” Students are familiar with evacuation because of the required fire drills. However, depending on the situation, they may need to “lock down” on a moment’s notice to remain safe. We want everyone to be able to do this quickly, and a minimum of panic.
  • Advising parents what they should do/not do in case of emergency. The staff will be focused on meeting the immediate needs of children in their care. We would ask parents to tune to their local radio station for information. We don’t want to jam precious telephone lines necessary for emergency communications. We also request that parents wait until an announcement is made before proceeding to the school to collect children.
  • Informing students and parents regarding district policies and state laws, especially in the area of weapons and violence, and enforcing those policies.
  • Providing training in promising programs that prevent bullying and help all students to be successful in schools.

What can parents do to help? In my previous roles as principal in the District and as the “complaint person”, I have definitely seen a troubling trend over the last six years. Let me give you an example. When I got in trouble as a child and the teacher wrote a note home regarding discipline, I was in big trouble. That isn’t necessarily the case any more. When I call a student’s home regarding a discipline situation, responses often fall into two broad categories - 1) thank you for the information, I’ll follow up at home, or 2) that’s the school’s problem and my child couldn’t have done that (whatever that is) unless he/she had good reason. What I’ve noticed is that the number of parents whose immediate response falls into the second category has increased dramatically. Don’t get me wrong – I believe it is the role of the parent to advocate for their child. However, it is to the detriment of all involved to justify behavior or actions that clearly violate school rules and expectations. Please ask questions. Please believe there may be more to the story than your child is telling you. Please understand that it school administrators have the job of keeping all children as safe as possible and that means setting limits for student behavior. It is important to remember that in order to eliminate violence in our schools, we will all need to work together.