School safety is a very serious issue. Parents and the community have always believed that one of the safest places for a child to be is at school. This is certainly not an unreasonable expectation. However, in recent times, we have seen schools become slaughterhouses and both staff and students terrorized by students who seemingly have no moral conscience or who have such pent-up rage about their condition that they show no hesitation in bringing a gun to school and killing their teachers and classmates. Hopefully, we have learned something about the causation of these events.

April 20 marks the anniversary of the infamous Columbine High School shootings. For the last few years, this anniversary has been turned into a day of mischief and threats on schools. It is time for us to take control of this situation and to honor those that have lost their lives at the hands of students who have either taken their own lives or ruined their lives and the lives of the survivors.

April 19, 2002, in the Los Lunas Schools will be Safe School Day. We will be asking all teachers, staff, students and parents to participate and celebrate this day. We will also be providing teachers, staff, students and parents with some information that we hope will lead to healthy discussions about school safety and what each individual can do to make and keep schools safe.

School Safety Action Steps

Students Can Take

There is much that students can do to help create safe schools. They can talk to their teachers, parents, and counselors to find out how to get involved and do their part to make their school safe. Here are some ideas that students in other schools have tried:

  • Listen to your friends if they share troubling feelings or thoughts. Encourage them to get help from a trusted adult such as a school psychologist, counselor, social worker, leader from the faith community or other professional. If you are very concerned, seek help for them. Share your concerns with your parents.
  • Create, join or support student organizations that combat violence, such as Students Against Destructive Decisions and Young Heroes Program.
  • Work with local businesses and community groups to organize youth-oriented activities that help young people think of ways to prevent school and community violence. Share your ideas for how these community groups and businesses can support your efforts.
  • Organize an assembly and invite your school psychologist, school social worker and counselor, in addition to student panelists, to share ideas about how to deal with violence, intimidation and bullying.
  • Get involved in planning, implementing, and evaluating your school’s violence prevention and response plan.
  • Participate in violence prevention programs such as peer mediation and conflict resolution. Employ your new skills in other settings, such as the home, neighborhood and community.
  • Work with your teachers and administrators to create a safe process for reporting threats, intimidation, weapon possession, drug selling, gang activity, graffiti and vandalism. Use the process.
  • Ask for permission to invite a law enforcement officer to your school to conduct a safety audit and share safety tips, such as traveling in groups and avoiding areas known to be unsafe. Share your ideas with the officer.
  • Help to develop and participate in activities that promote student understanding of differences and that respect the rights of all.
  • Volunteer to be a mentor for younger students and/or provide tutoring to your peers.
  • Know your school’s code of conduct and model responsible behavior. Avoid being part of a crowd when fights break out. Refrain from teasing, bullying and intimidating peers.
  • Be a role model take personal responsibility by reacting to anger without physically or verbally harming others.
  • Seek help from your parents or a trusted adult, such as a school psychologist, social worker, counselor or teacher if you are experiencing intense feelings of anger, fear, anxiety or depression.

School Safety Tips

for Parents

Parents can help create safe schools. Here are some ideas that parents in other communities have tried:

  • Discuss the school’s discipline policy with your child. Show your support for the rules, and help your child understand the reasons for them.
  • Involve your child in setting rules for appropriate behavior at home.
  • Talk with your child about the violence he or she sees on television, in video games and possibly in the neighborhood. Help your child understand the consequences of violence.
  • Teach your child how to solve problems. Praise your child when he or she follows through.
  • Help your child find ways to show anger that do not involve verbally or physically hurting others. When you get angry, use it as an opportunity to model these appropriate responses for your child and talk about it.
  • Help your child understand the value of accepting individual differences.
  • Note any disturbing behaviors in your child. For example, frequent angry outbursts, excessive fighting and bullying of other children, cruelty to animals, fire setting, frequent behavior problems at school and in the neighborhood, lack of friends and alcohol or drug use can be signs of serious problems. Get help for your child. Talk with a trusted professional in your child’s school or in the community.
  • Keep lines of communication open with your child even when it is tough. Encourage your child always to let you know where and with whom he or she will be. Get to know your child’s friends.
  • Listen to your child if he or she shares concerns about friends who may be exhibiting troubling behaviors.
  • Share this information with a trusted professional, such as the school psychologist, principal or teacher.
  • Be involved in your child’s school life by supporting and reviewing homework, talking with his or her teacher(s), and attending school functions such as parent conferences, class programs, open houses and PTA/ PTC meetings.
  • Work with your child’s school to make it more responsive to all students and to all families. Share your ideas about how the school can encourage family involvement, welcome all families and include them in meaningful ways in their children’s education.
  • Encourage your school to offer before- and after-school programs.
  • Volunteer to work with school-based groups concerned with violence prevention. If none exist, offer to form one.
  • Find out if there is a violence prevention group in your community. Offer to participate in the group’s activities.
  • Talk with the parents of your child’s friends. Discuss how you can form a team to ensure your children’s safety.
  • Find out if your employer offers provisions for parents to participate in school activities.

Characteristics of a School That Is Safe and Responsive To All Children

Well-functioning schools foster learning, safety and socially appropriate behaviors. They have a strong academic focus and support students in achieving high standards, foster positive relationships between school staff and students and promote meaningful parental and community involvement. Most prevention programs in effective schools address multiple factors and recognize that safety and order are related to children’s social, emotional, and academic development.

Effective prevention, intervention and crisis response strategies operate best in school communities that:

  • Focus on academic achievement. Effective schools convey the attitude that all children can achieve academically and behave appropriately, while at the same time appreciating individual differences. Adequate resources and programs help ensure that expectations are met. Expectations are communicated clearly, with the understanding that meeting such expectations is a responsibility of the student, the school and the home. Students who do not receive the support they need are less likely to behave in socially desirable ways.
  • Involve families in meaningful ways. Students whose families are involved in their growth in and outside of school are more likely to experience school success and less likely to become involved in antisocial activities. School communities must make parents feel welcome in school, address barriers to their participation and keep families positively engaged in their children’s education. Effective schools also support families in expressing concerns about their children and they support families in getting the help they need to address behaviors that cause concern.
  • Develop links to the community. Everyone must be committed to improving schools. Schools that have close ties to families, support services, community police, the faith-based community and the community at large can benefit from many valuable resources. When these links are weak, the risk of school violence is heightened and the opportunity to serve children who are at risk for violence or who may be affected by it is decreased.
  • Emphasize positive relationships among students and staff. Research shows that a positive relationship with an adult who is available to provide support when needed is one of the most critical factors in preventing student violence. Students often look to adults in the school community for guidance, support and direction. Some children need help overcoming feelings of isolation and support in developing connections to others. Effective schools make sure that opportunities exist for adults to spend quality, personal time with children. Effective schools also foster positive student interpersonal relations they encourage students to help each other and to feel comfortable assisting others in getting help when needed.
  • Discuss safety issues openly. Children come to school with many different perceptions and misconceptions about death, violence and the use of weapons. Schools can reduce the risk of violence by teaching children about the dangers of firearms, as well as appropriate strategies for dealing with feelings, expressing anger in appropriate ways and resolving conflicts. Schools also should teach children that they are responsible for their actions and that the choices they make have consequences for which they will be held accountable.
  • Treat students with equal respect. A major source of conflict in many schools is the perceived or real problem of bias and unfair treatment of students because of ethnicity, gender, race, social class, religion, disability, nationality, sexual orientation, physical appearance or some other factor, both by staff and by peers. Students who have been treated unfairly may become scapegoats and/or targets of violence. In some cases, victims may react in aggressive ways. Effective schools communicate to students and the greater community that all children are valued and respected. There is a deliberate and systematic effort, for example, displaying children’s artwork, posting academic work prominently throughout the building, respecting students’ diversity to establish a climate that demonstrates care and a sense of community.
  • Create ways for students to share their concerns. It has been found that peers often are the most likely group to know in advance about potential school violence. Schools must create ways for students to safely report such troubling behaviors that may lead to dangerous situations. Students who report potential school violence must be protected. It is important for schools to support and foster positive relationships between students and adults so that students will feel safe providing information about a potentially dangerous situation.
  • Help children feel safe expressing their feelings. It is very important that children feel safe when expressing their needs, fears and anxieties to school staff. When they do not have access to caring adults, feelings of isolation, rejection and disappointment are more likely to occur, increasing the probability of acting-out behaviors.
  • Have in place a system for referring children who are suspected of being abused or neglected. The referral system must be appropriate and reflect federal and state guidelines.
  • Offer extended day programs for children. School-based before- and after-school programs can be effective in reducing violence. Effective programs are well supervised and provide children with support and a range of options, such as counseling, tutoring, mentoring, cultural arts, community service, clubs, access to computers and help with homework.
  • Promote good citizenship and character. In addition to their academic mission, schools must help students become good citizens. First, schools stand for the civic values set forth in our Constitution and Bill of Rights (patriotism; freedom of religion, speech and press; equal protection-nondiscrimination; and due process and fairness). Schools also reinforce and promote the shared values of their local communities, such as honesty, kindness, responsibility and respect for others. (Los Lunas Schools currently utilizes the Renais-sance Program for this purpose)
  • Schools should acknowledge that parents are the primary moral educators of their children and work in partnership with them.
  • Identify problems and assess progress toward solutions. Schools must openly and objectively examine circumstances that are potentially dangerous for students and staff and situations where members of the school community feel threatened or intimidated. Safe schools continually assess progress by identifying problems and collecting information regarding progress toward solutions. Moreover, effective schools share this information with students, families and the community at large.
  • Support students in making the transition to adult life and the workplace. Youth need assistance in planning their future and in developing skills that will result in success. For example, schools can provide students with community service opportunities, work-study programs and apprenticeships that help connect them to caring adults in the community. These relationships, when established early, foster in youth a sense of hope and security for the future.

(Danny Burnett is superintendent of the Los Lunas Schools.)

Research has demonstrated repeatedly that school communities can do a great deal to prevent violence. Having in place a safe and responsive foundation helps all children and it enables school communities to provide more efficient and effective services to students who need more support. The next step is to learn the early warning signs of a child, who is troubled, so that effective interventions can be provided.

School Violence: Warning Signs

The following early warning signs are presented with the following qualifications. They are not equally significant and they are not presented in order of seriousness. The early warning signs include:

Social withdrawal. In some situations, gradual and eventually complete withdrawal from social contacts can be an important indicator of a troubled child. The withdrawal often stems from feelings of depression, rejection, persecution, unworthiness, and lack of confidence.

Excessive feelings of isolation and being alone. Research has shown that the majority of children who are isolated and appear to be friendless are not violent. In fact, these feelings are sometimes characteristic of children and youth who may be troubled, withdrawn, or have internal issues that hinder development of social affiliations. However, research also has shown that in some cases feelings of isolation and not having friends are associated with children who behave aggressively and violently.

Excessive feelings of rejection. In the process of growing up, and in the course of adolescent development, many young people experience emotionally painful rejection. Children who are troubled often are isolated from their mentally healthy peers. Their responses to rejection will depend on many background factors. Without support, they may be at risk of expressing their emotional distress in negative ways, including violence. Some aggressive children who are rejected by non-aggressive peers seek out aggressive friends who, in turn, reinforce their violent tendencies.

Being a victim of violence. Children who are victims of violence, including physical or sexual abuse, in the community, at school, or at home are sometimes at risk themselves of becoming violent toward themselves or others.

Feelings of being picked on and persecuted. The youth who feels constantly picked on, teased, bullied, singled out for ridicule, and humiliated at home or at school may initially withdraw socially. If not given adequate support in addressing these feelings, some children may vent them in inappropriate ways, including possible aggression or violence.

Low school interest and poor academic performance. Poor school achievement can be the result of many factors. It is important to consider whether there is a drastic change in performance and/or poor performance becomes a chronic condition that limits the child’s capacity to learn. In some situations such as when the low achiever feels frustrated, unworthy, chastised, and denigrated acting out and aggressive behaviors may occur. It is important to assess the emotional and cognitive reasons for the academic performance change to determine the true nature of the problem.

Expression of violence in writings and drawings. Children and youth often express their thoughts, feelings, desires, and intentions in their drawings and in stories, poetry, and other written expressive forms. Many children produce work about violent themes that for the most part is harmless when taken in context. However, an overrepresentation of violence in writings and drawings that is directed at specific individuals (family members, peers, and other adults) consistently over time, may signal emotional problems and the potential for violence. Because there is a real danger in misdiagnosing such a sign, it is important to seek the guidance of a qualified professional such as a school psychologist, counselor, or other mental health specialist to determine its meaning.

Uncontrolled anger. Everyone gets angry; anger is a natural emotion. However, anger that is expressed frequently and intensely in response to minor irritants may signal potential violent behavior toward self or others.

Patterns of impulsive and chronic hitting, intimidating, and bullying behaviors. Children often engage in acts of shoving and mild aggression. However, some mildly aggressive behaviors such as constant hitting and bullying of others that occur early in children’s lives, if left unattended, might later escalate into more serious behaviors.

History of discipline problems. Chronic behavior and disciplinary problems both in school and at home may suggest that underlying emotional needs are not being met. These unmet needs may be manifested in acting out and aggressive behaviors. These problems may set the stage for the child to violate norms and rules, defy authority, disengage from school, and engage in aggressive behaviors with other children and adults.

Past history of violent and aggressive behavior. Unless provided with support and counseling, a youth who has a history of aggressive or violent behavior is likely to repeat those behaviors. Aggressive and violent acts may be directed toward other individuals, be expressed in cruelty to animals, or include fire setting. Youth who show an early pattern of antisocial behavior frequently and across multiple settings are particularly at risk for future aggressive and antisocial behavior.

Similarly, youth who engage in overt behaviors such as bullying, generalized aggression and defiance, and covert behaviors such as stealing, vandalism, lying, cheating, and fire setting also are at risk for more serious aggressive behavior. Research suggests that age of onset may be a key factor in interpreting early warning signs. For example, children who engage in aggression and drug abuse at an early age (before age 12) are more likely to show violence later on than are children who begin such behavior at an older age. In the presence of such signs it is important to review the child’s history with behavioral experts and seek parents’ observations and insights.

Intolerance for differences and prejudicial attitudes. All children have likes and dislikes. However, an intense prejudice toward others based on racial, ethnic, religious, language, gender, sexual orientation, ability, and physical appearance, when coupled with other factors, may lead to violent assaults against those who are perceived to be different. Membership in hate groups or the willingness to victimize individuals with disabilities or health problems also should be treated as early warning signs.

Drug use and alcohol use. Apart from being unhealthy behaviors, drug use and alcohol use reduces self-control and exposes children and youth to violence, either as perpetrators, as victims, or both.

Affiliation with gangs. Gangs that support anti-social values and behaviors including extortion, intimidation, and acts of violence toward other students, cause fear and stress among other students. Youth who are influenced by these groups, those who emulate and copy their behavior, as well as those who become affiliated with them, may adopt these values and act in violent or aggressive ways in certain situations. Gang-related violence and turf battles are common occurrences tied to the use of drugs that often result in injury and/or death.

Inappropriate access to, possession of, and use of firearms. Children and youth who inappropriately possess or have access to firearms can have an increased risk for violence. Research shows that such youngsters also have a higher probability of becoming victims. Families can reduce inappropriate access and use by restricting, monitoring, and supervising children’s access to firearms and other weapons. Children who have a history of aggression, impulsiveness, or other emotional problems should not have access to firearms and other weapons.

Serious threats of violence. Idle threats are a common response to frustration. Alternatively, one of the most reliable indicators that a youth is likely to commit a dangerous act toward self or others is a detailed and specific threat to use violence. Recent incidents across the country clearly indicate that threats to commit violence against oneself or others should be taken very seriously. Steps must be taken to understand the nature of these threats and to prevent them from being carried out.

The Los Lunas Schools has made significant progress in all categories of student disciplinary issues and school bus disciplinary issues over the last several years. We are pleased with this progress and continue to make it a high priority. We have also had great success with the Renaissance Program that has helped with academic, attendance and behavior improvement. During our celebration of Safe School Day we invite the public to help us be proactive in setting a good example for our young people and to reinforce the values, ethics, morals and manners that we want all children to exhibit. Together we can continue to provide families with one of the safest places for a child to be, at school.

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