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Keeping kids safe

Parents should make children aware of the potential dangers of strangers

Samantha Johnston

Protecting children from abduction may be as simple as initiating a discussion, according to local law enforcement personnel.

Walking to school, playing in the park or biking to a friend’s house may be familiar habits in a small town, but an awareness of the risks and potential for abduction is key in preventing this type of tragedy.

“Talk to your kids. Ask your kids how they would respond to different situations,” Craig Police Sgt. Bill Leonard said. “If you talk to your kids, then you hope that they know how to handle each situation correctly.”

But developing a relationship with one’s children is more than just an occasional discussion.

“Be open and honest with your kids so that they feel comfortable talking to you,” he said.

Although Craig is a small community, the potential for something to happen is always there.

“Do people really know who comes through Craig, who lives in Craig and what their histories are?” Leonard said. “When you look at statistics about where children are taken from, it’s not always big cities. Is your child worth the attitude that ‘It doesn’t happen here’?”

With school quickly approaching and more parents having to work, children are often left unattended at city parks, swimming pools or downtown.

“From my standpoint, the thing that gives me concern the most is driving down the street and kids as little as 5 and 6 years old are standing on the street, or 6- and 7-year-olds who are walking alone on Yampa Avenue beside the road. One quick stop and somebody has them in the car,” Leonard said.

Statistics indicate that abductors who know what they are doing will sit back and watch for kids who are playing without supervision. Parents, guardians or babysitters who are with their kids will deter abductors, according to Leonard.

During school months, officers have an increased awareness of and presence in school areas and are on the lookout for individuals or vehicles that look out of place. It is also not uncommon for officers in unmarked cars to survey school areas, Leonard said.

But the bottom line for Leonard is parents need to talk to their children, know what they are doing at all times, and be able to gauge their knowledge about the potential for danger.

“It’s too bad that we live in a world where it’s not always safe to be friendly,” Leonard said. “Kids are becoming more focused on what’s going on in the world since Sept. 11, and that can be pretty intimidating and scary for kids. It’s a prime opportunity to talk to your kids about abduction when they bring up other events that scare them. It’s a matter of talking to your kids instead of letting it go and not talking to them.”

Education

For all children, especially younger ones, conversations often begin with defining what a stranger is, said Sunrise Kids, LLC owner Judi Whilden.

“To you and me, a stranger is someone that we don’t know, however, most abductions happen with someone we do know,” Whilden said. “We need to teach children that if a stranger is an honest person, they’ll tell you to go get a mom, dad or another adult before you go anywhere with them. If they say ‘no’ or encourage you to go with them without talking to another adult, that should send up a red flag and they should run away immediately.”

One Craig mother reminds her children to stay away from strangers by putting things in perspective.

“Adults are always talking to strangers; this is Craig and you talk to strangers in the grocery store

line all the time, but you expect your kids not to,” said Michelle Story, mother and teacher at Sunrise

Kids. She has one simple rule for her children: they are only allowed to talk to a stranger who is their size or smaller.

“This rule helps them to understand that they should stay away from adult strangers,” she said.

“It’s such a scary world because we want our children to be safe, but we have to teach them scary things,” Whilden said.

Precautionary measures

But protecting children doesn’t stop at home. Sunrise Kids requires that all parents or guardians sign-in and sign-out each time a child is dropped off or picked up and only those individuals listed on an emergency card are allowed to take children off of the premises. Sunrise Kids staff routinely checks the identification of anyone unfamiliar to them, even if they are on the list.

“We do not release parents to anyone on the list without written or verbal permission. We have been known to turn away family members because they are not on the list,” Whilden said.

Like the Moffat County School District, head counts are taken regularly to make sure all children who are signed in are accounted for at all times.

Moffat County Superintendent of Schools Pete Bergmann said the safety of children at school is one of the over-arching school goals and a part of the school district’s mission statement.

“We have a series of policies and education programs that we offer through the schools to ensure the safety of students,” Bergmann said.

“Our security measures cover everything from cameras to visitor check-in policies, suspicious person policies and plans for how administration should respond to every situation. Our plan consists of a combination of policing our facilities from a physical standpoint and education programs that teach our kids how to deal with a variety of unsafe situations.”

Policing in the schools begins at the beginning of the day and doesn’t end until after school children have left the building.

“We take attendance first thing in the morning and it is a policy for the clerical staff to contact all parents of absent children within one half hour of school starting,” Bergmann said. “Attendance is taken again after lunch.”

Bergmann said teachers and administrators are constantly taking head counts, whether it is on a field trip or after recess.

“If we are missing somebody, we have a procedure we will go through to locate the child as quickly as possible,” Bergmann said. “We have a network of phone calls, contacts, emergency contacts and we focus on finding the kid. A missing child is an absolute priority not only in the school district, but with law enforcement and the whole community.”

The school district employs school resource officers, who have been a tremendous addition to school security, Bergmann said.

“We have good communication with the various inter-agencies about potential high-risk situations that may have occurred off of school grounds,” Bergmann said. “With this communication, we can heighten our awareness about specific students or problems.”

Like the police department and preschools, Bergmann said all schools focus on making it a priority to identify all people who are not familiar to staff or students.

“We even ask our custodians to greet people in the school and ask ‘May we help you?”

At East Elementary School, staff members are required to monitor after-school bus loading to who is picking children up after school.

“We have people on the playground who are aware and watch the children in addition to watching the area for suspicious people,” East Elementary Principal Diana Cook said.

“We even have someone on Texas Avenue who monitors who picks children up after school. And, we encourage all parents to keep us informed if someone different will be picking their children up.”

Possibly the most important thing children can do in the schools is to report anything suspicious, Cook said.

“If kids see something, feel uncomfortable or funny, they are encouraged to report it to an adult in every case,” she said.


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