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Schools preview ways to avoid student violence

Harrison County’s three public school systems put their heads together recently to take a close look at safety programs in schools.
For the past decade, school violence has become a major problem for school corporations across the country, with more than 400 violent deaths since 1992. Shootings have taken place in the small towns of Jonesboro, Ark., West Paducah, Ky., Lancaster County, Pa., and many other places where no one thought anything like that could happen in their schools.
To help find ways to make schools safe in Harrison County, the South Harrison Community School Corp. hosted a day-long safety seminar on Nov. 2, including a public session that evening. Administrators from North Harrison and Lanesville school corporations also attended.
Dr. Ronald Stephens, executive director at the National School Safety Center, gave the presentation. He heard concerns from community principals and other school administrators.
Stephens, who holds a degree from Pepperdine University in education and a doctorate in education administration, is also a former teacher, school administrative and school board member.
‘It’s great to have a man like Dr. Stephens come to our community,’ said Dr. Neyland Clark, superintendent of South Harrison schools. ‘To have someone with his expertise and experience here at our building is such a wonderful thing for our principals.’
During the morning session, professional development and training with the central office was held, and school administrators were able to tell Stephens of problems that happen in this community, such as threats against teachers by students.
Administrators also had the opportunity to see what can happen during a school shooting. Stephens showed a video of the Red Lake, Minn., school shooting in March 2005, when a suspended student went to his grandfather’s house (his grandfather was a police officer), shot and killed his grandfather and his girlfriend, then took some guns, a bullet-proof vest and his grandfather’s squad car before heading to the high school.
Once the boy arrived at the school, it was only a matter of seconds before he killed one of the two security officers and the suspended student had control of the school. The student went on to kill seven students before killing himself.
After the video, Stephens reminded the audience that Red Lake, Minn., was a small town where everyone was under the belief that nothing bad could happen there. Part of the belief came from the fact that the school had taken some safety measures, such as installing a fence around the school, using a metal detector and hiring security guards.
The system, however, broke down, Stephens said. One of the guards was killed and the other ran away. The suspended student drove through the opening in the fence and walked around the metal detector. Stephens said the school secretary saw the boy walking into the school, but she just closed the door.
During the afternoon, school principals discussed concerns and issues they had, mostly dealing with bullying and minor issues that could snowball into bigger problems. South Harrison’s anti-bullying committee, which is made up of students, school staff and parents, was in attendance.
‘People usually think (bullying) is small stuff,’ Stephens said. ‘Today, they humiliate, ridicule, manipulate, and some do things online.’
Jim Crisp, principal at South Central Junior-Senior High School, said he thinks that some of the bullying occurs outside their jurisdiction.
‘I see so much of this happening outside of the school,’ he said, referring to social events on the weekend, instant messaging and other events that are starting points for a lot of bullying.
As was the case with the two most recent school shootings, there usually are warning signs, Stephens said. He told administrators about an incident that began between two boys fighting over a girl, through instant messaging. The girl showed one boy what the other boy had said, which then led to violence at school.
‘The parents might know’ about the instant messaging, said Stephens. ‘Some parents will say (to the children) do what you need to do, and the school officials won’t even know.’
The school didn’t know in this case, which is a big factor when it comes to what school officials decide to do, said Stephens.
‘I always ask, what did you know, when did you know it, and what did you do about it,’ he said.
In 2003, Stephens said it was estimated that six out of 10 teens in the United States witnessed bullying in school at least once a day.
That evening, Stephens and others who attended throughout the day, as well as Sheriff Mike Deatrick, Chief Gary Gilley and Prosecutor Dennis Byrd, met in the Corydon Central Auditorium.
Stephens said he found it comforting that the community had him come before a crisis had occurred, because usually he comes in after a crisis, to find a way to prevent another one from happening.
The parents in Corydon were mostly concerned with threats that their children have received, a matter that was brought up throughout the day. Stephens answer was always the same:
‘Once there is a threat, particularly a death threat, then it becomes a criminal matter,’ and police should be called to investigate, he said. ‘We, as adults, don’t deal with threats, theft, harassment, rape and other crimes, and our children shouldn’t either.’
Matt Kellems, in addition to his duties as athletic director and assistant principal at Lanesville Junior-Senior High School, is the safety officer for the Lanesville Community School Corp.
‘We’re always looking at safety precautions that we can take,’ he said, adding that the goal is to always be improving safety for the students.
Besides completing required yearly training, Kellems said he annually reviews the corporation’s emergency plan.
Ken Oppel, school safety officer in addition to transportation director and assistant superintendent at North Harrison Community School Corp., said after completing his annual training, he meets with building principals. They occasionally practice drills with students.
‘People may not see what we’re doing,’ he said, ‘but we’re doing things.
Oppel said he believes all schools are safe places and that administrators take their charge of keeping students safe seriously.
Dr. Clark, at the conclusion of the afternoon session on Nov. 2, said he wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, that this community, including all the schools in the county, is where he wants to be.
South Harrison schools hope to work with local police to work out various scenarios at its schools.
At the Corydon campus, there are several places to have a command center, in case of an act of terror occurs. At the South Central campus, the school might work with the nearby golf course, and work with a nearby church at Heth-Washington and New Middletown Elementary schools.
‘I’m very proud of our students and staff at Corydon Central and South Central,’ he said. ‘Kids have a fundamental right to walk our halls and not be afraid.
‘I wouldn’t trade jobs with anyone at Floyd County or Greater Clark County, even though they recently brought in the President. We’re committed to making it work, to make the kids comfortable, make the schools in our community safe, and I believe in my heart that we’ll make it work.’
Information for this story was also gathered by Assistant Editor Jo Ann Spieth-Saylor.