School safety requires stronger relationships

School safety is everybody’s business. Protecting children in school takes everybody working together, in the schools and the homes, especially, but also throughout the community.

And, like anything else worthwhile, school safety is a continuing struggle.

As former Everett Superintendent Jane Hammond told a community gathering earlier this month, there are no simple answers. Hammond knows. She is the superintendent of schools in Colorado’s Jefferson County, where Columbine High School suffered the nation’s worst school shooting.

On April 20, 1999, 12 students and one teacher died at the hands of other students.

Since then, Hammond has talked to numerous groups about school safety. Hammond honors the dead by helping prevent similar tragedies. As Hammond tells people, if it could happen at Columbine it could happen anywhere. And if it could happen on one day, it could happen anytime.

School superintendents in Snohomish County have taken Hammond’s message to heart, and used it in working with their staffs, students and communities to improve safety. Several attended her recent presentation, finding themselves deeply moved even though most had heard her address the issue before. Mukilteo Superintendent Gary Toothaker says that anyone listening to Hammond discuss Columbine realizes intensely that there are no guarantees. But improvements can be made.

As Hammond notes, schools are usually the safest places in any community. Even school shootings — like crime generally — have fallen, although more of the crimes have involved multiple victims in recent years. The experience of Columbine has convinced Hammond that simple solutions — from gun control to metal detectors — aren’t the way to make students safer and more secure.

Instead, Hammond says, safety can be most improved by building relationships. For instance, Edmonds Superintendent Wayne Robertson says that virtually every school has programs, often involving regular class meetings, that help students with problem solving, inclusiveness and dealing with alienation. And, the superintendents all believe, that adults in schools and the community need to reach out to young people. Then a student has someone to turn to when that young person is troubled or knows of another student who is. The result of such efforts, says Lakewood Superintendent Kristine McDuffy, is that students in her district feel very comfortable bringing up potential safety issues. In Everett and other districts, many students have organized chapters of groups dedicated to improving school safety.

The effort to build stronger connections has to go beyond the school walls and beyond the families of students. The need, as Everett Superintendent Carol Whitehead puts it, is for both the "outside relationships and the inside relationships." And the superintendents are downright effusive in their praise for the support they have received from city and county governments, police departments and the sheriff’s office. The cooperation extends over a wide range of activities, including the placement of officers in school, increased emergency training and the development of joint emergency communication systems.

As impossible as guarantees may be, students can know that they are part of a community that cares about them and their safety. That type of knowledge will help both learning and the effort to make schools safe as possible.


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