Safe schools breed less violence

Program encourages community involvement in student activities

The Columbine shooting in 1999 spawned a new awareness across America. Violence among youth, especially in schools, has become one of this country's most pressing concerns.

It is also a source of controversy.

While no recent nationwide study of the real extent of youth violence is available, small-scale and regional studies indicate that youth violence is increasing, at least slightly. Recent surveys indicate the most prevalent type of youth crime is theft, and the most common types of violence are fist fights, bullying and shoving matches.

In an effort to ensure that Moffat County schools have guidelines to address youth violence, the Board of Education, in consultation with the School Improvement Committee, is developing a safe schools plan.

According to Gary Ellgen, president of the school board, the Colorado Association of School Boards earlier this year handed down recommendations to create policies for safe schools. The move was sparked by a law passed last legislative session requiring all Colorado schools to undergo safe school planning.

"It grew out of Columbine and what happened there," Ellgen said. "Basically, we'll look at attitude, atmosphere, and methods of dealing with violations."

According to Ellgen and other school board members, a safe, secure and welcoming environment in schools not only encourages effective learning and teaching, but also contributes to improved attendance, increased student achievement and community support.

"The hope is that the School Improvement Committee will develop a policy out of this recommendation," Ellgen said. "It's a continuing process, and they will come back to the Board with recommendations and ideas throughout the year."

Each school principal will be responsible for implementing final safe school policies. Several items will be addressed in creating the new school program, including training programs for teachers and students in how to recognize and respond to behavior that may indicate impending violence; training and support for students that helps relieve the fear, embarrassment and peer pressure associated with reporting any behavior that may indicate violence; procedures to provide regular communication between school officials and law enforcement officers to discuss crisis prevention and management strategies; procedures for reporting criminal activity in schools to law enforcement; student and teacher training for fire prevention and safety and procedures and training programs for school safety and security.

Rob Sanders, Moffat County High School principal, said there are very few problems at the high school. "The kids here are some of the best in the state," he said. "If there are any problems, counseling services are available for our students. We're trying to be proactive in terms of harassment we offer sexual harassment seminars for the students and we have lock-down procedures in case of a Columbine situation."

"We're very fortunate in this area, for we have good kids and good teachers," Ellgen said.

But good students and good teachers aren't a guarantee.

"There's a potential problem in every school," Craig Middle School Counselor Kathy Bockelman said. "We haven't had any big problems at the middle school, but I think we have a lot of kids who need anger management and training in conflict resolution," she said.

According to Bockelman, middle school students participated in a survey two years ago to assess their assets.

"Only 24 percent of the kids said they felt the school had a safe and caring environment. I'm concerned about that," she said.

Last year, Attorney General Ken Salazar and Delbert Elliott, Director of the University of Colorado's Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence (CSPV), met with students and community members in a statewide tour to collect input on issues surrounding youth violence.

"We wanted to find out how communities across Colorado are dealing with youth violence, and to find out specifically what communities and schools need to help them address the issues such as drug use bullying, and the unsupervised time period after school," Assistant Attorney General Joan Padilla said.

According to Padilla, there are some innovative programs around the state, such as in Gilbert High School where the seniors have initiated a zero-tolerance to violence program by acting as positive examples for younger students.

Many students are more aware than ever before of the importance of reporting acts of violence, Padilla said, but for those fearful of peer pressure, a central toll free number has been set up statewide for young people to make anonymous reports. That number is 1-877-542-7233.

"Students say bullying has been around for a long time," Padilla said. "But we know bullying has changed because it is more severe and students tend to react to it in a more severe and aggressive way than they used to. And we now know there are things people can do to prevent violence."

In an effort to address concerns of the Colorado education community, the CSPV introduced the Safe Communities Safe Schools Initiative in the fall of 1999. This Initiative was made possible by the support of several key Colorado educational and political agencies that serve as partners of the Initiative.

As a result of the Initiative, Colorado schools were offered the opportunity to receive in-depth training and technical assistance for safe school planning. CSPV selected 20 sites throughout Colorado to receive assistance in developing a Safe School Plan, using the Safe Communities Safe Schools model. The application deadline was Jan. 31 and the Hayden school district was one of those selected.

Mari Mahanna, teacher and health and safe schools coordinator in Hayden, said her school district had begun work on safe school issues before applying for assistance. Since being selected, CSPV has provided training on how to implement the Safe Communities - Safe Schools model in the Hayden community.

"The Hayden schools are in a critical area," Mahanna said. "They sit right on Highway 40, right in the middle of lots of traffic including drugs and alcohol. And there's higher access to guns in this area because of hunters."

According to Mahanna, CSPV will track Hayden's progress over the next three years in implementing the plan.

"They trained us in how to work together, and assigned a police officer to the school. We have an inter-agency group that meets once a month and a program in place for the police and schools to share information on student acts of violence that was never possible before," she said. "We're working on the school atmosphere right now, making it a warmer, more inviting place like Tiger Pride night and building activities that include the community."

Even though CSPV has selected the communities for model plans, the agency is available to provide limited training and technical assistance with safe school planning on request to all Colorado schools and communities.

"There are lots of different factors that cause violence in schools," Mahanna said. "There's not a magic pill that will work for every community or school. Basically, each community has to look at their own makeup first."

Bockelman believes attitudes are pervasive in our culture. "To make a difference in the schools, we have to go out into the communities and make a difference," she said.

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