School safety questioned

Superintendent says anti-bullying efforts are working

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Some parents of Moffat County School District students have voiced concerns recently about their children's safety, but school district officials are confident their anti-violence and anti-bullying policies are working.

Any hint of danger is cause for a school to call together a team to determine whether an action constitutes an accident, a lapse in judgement or a credible threat.

That team has been called together more than a dozen times this year on incidents ranging from threatening notes to one student choking another.

"We've got a tremendously quality process in place to deal with these situations," Superintendent of Schools Pete Bergmann said. "School safety is part of our mission statement."

The process fills two three-ring binders, each with step-by-step instructions for handling and evaluating violent or potentially violent situations.

Bergmann touts the plan as proactive and reactive, ensuring that all students feel safe at school. For potentially violent students, that means finding alternatives to traditional education.

The question "Does your student feel safe?" got the highest number of affirmative responses two years in a row of all the 25 questions on a parent survey.

Similar responses have been charted in student surveys which show a four-year upward trend in student safety.

"Safety is an ongoing goal," Bergmann said. "It's really incredible how much we do."

The April 30, 1999, Columbine High School shootings spurred a flurry of legislation and regulations about how schools handle safety issues.

From those came anti-bullying education and policies, as well as increased weapons and violence prevention policies.

"Columbine was the wake-up call that showed us we need to be more proactive in our planning," Bergmann said.

In Moffat County, that meant enacting bully-prevention policies and creating a violence and risk assessment team as well as refining the district's crisis response plan and emergency response teams.

"It was a catalyst for schools to take another look at school safety and procedures," Bergmann said.

At the first hint of a problem -- fights, verbal or non-verbal threats or bullying -- the school's principal takes the first step outlined by the district's procedures -- investigates the incident.

Strict guidelines govern that investigation, which include filling out a questionnaire about the incident and following step-by-step protocols.

After that, the principal has a choice -- handle the problem at a school level and take disciplinary action or assemble the district's violence response team.

"Right there is where judgement and common sense prevail, but as the situation progresses, we need to follow protocol and assess the risk," Bergmann said.

Or a principal can call together a multi-disciplinary meeting.

All steps are documented.

That violence risk assessment team has been called together following a bomb threat and possession of a weapon on school grounds.

The team can recommend suspension with routine disciplinary action, suspension pending establishing re-entry protocol and limitations or suspension pending a violence and risk assessment.

If a qualified psychologist performs a violence risk assessment, the principal and superintendent review the results and either recommend expulsion and homebound instruction or propose a supervised re-entry plan.

The re-entry plan could include alternative school placement, restricted access to classrooms or unrestricted re-entry.

"We've been able to respond quickly using a team of experts," Moffat County High School psychologist Christine Villard said.

"We do preliminary fact finding and problem solving on how best to set up intervention."

One of the goals of the policy is to identify youth who are at-risk and intervene before that risk escalates.

A recent incident at Craig Middle School where one student choked another to unconsciousness called the policy into question.

"We didn't follow our policy in this instance because we didn't know the magnitude of the incident," Bergmann said. "I really believe we have outstanding protocol in place to deal with threats and violent behavior.

"I don't want to say we're doing everything right, but we're actively working at all times to improve."

Once the incident was discovered, officials followed protocol, which ended in the student's expulsion, he said.

The school district has also implemented several proactive programs to boost self-esteem and prevent violence. Those include elementary school pride days and programs such as the Ridgeview Stars and East Eagles that reward good behavior.

"Our schools are extremely safe," Bergmann said.

"If you look at the school climate in Moffat County schools versus others, this is definitely the place people move to.

"People want their kids to be safe, and so do we."

Christina M. Currie can be reached at 824-7031, Ext. 210 or ccurrie@craigdailypress.com.

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