How Safe Are Your Schools?

A presidential appointee finds federal resources can boost schools' violence prevention efforts by KATE STETZNER

Iwas the principal of Margaret Leary Elementary School on April 11, 1994, when a 10-year-old brought a .22 semi-automatic handgun to school and killed Jeremy Bullock, a 5th grader. At the time, Jeremy was the youngest student in the United States to be murdered at a school.

The tragedy served as a terrible wakeup call, not only to Butte, Mont., but to the rest of the nation. After each subsequent fatal school-based shooting, including the most recent in Littleton, Colo., communities have issued a common refrain: "We didn't think that could happen here."

In Butte, we were left wondering how a community could be nursed back to health after such a sudden and violent schoolyard calamity. We also needed to learn how secondary victims could receive caring support and long-term rehabilitation for post-traumatic stress.

We looked for solutions that would address the multifaceted problems wrought by the homicide and that would allow students, teachers and the entire school community to move on with their lives.

A Safety Team
Our school district's initial step was to create a school-based safety team. The team, consisting of individuals from child service agencies, teachers, counselors, parents, law enforcement, the county attorney's office and the faith community, focused on crisis debriefing, children at risk of troubled behavior and restoring the school to some measure of normalcy.

This interagency group continues to meet on a weekly basis to discuss crisis procedures and operational safety.

We discovered immediate crisis debriefing in the hours after a serious act of violence to be an absolute must. Ideally, this debriefing should be conducted by someone who is trained in critical incidence work. In Butte, I filled that role, having been trained years earlier by Community Intervention, a Minnesota-based training organization that deals with crisis management.

I immediately gave notice to fellow team members that I needed assistance and at least 40 counselors, law enforcement officers and school board members responded from throughout the state. Teachers and other school staff needed firsthand information on how to deal with traumatized children and, more importantly, how to get the classroom back to "normal" as quickly as possible.

The tragedy propelled our community into action. Ultimately, these efforts have gained national attention for our district, and I have been privileged to serve on several national school safety committees. In April 1998, I was appointed to a presidential task force to study the causes of youth violence and discuss preventive measures that could be shared with educational leaders and others nationwide. Ironically, the school shooting in Springfield, Ore., last spring occurred on the first day of the task force's inaugural meeting.

Analyzing Causes
That first meeting of the Presidential Task Force on Youth Violence, hosted by Attorney General Janet Reno and her legal staff, focused on analyzing the causes of violence in the schools. Three key questions were raised:
  • Is there a trend between recent school shootings?
  • What can the federal government do to help schools deal with gun violence?
  • What commonalties were present in the recent school shootings?

As we reviewed the most serious schoolyard shooting incidents of the 1997-98 year, the common factors about the perpetrators emerged rather quickly:

  • All were boys;
  • Each shooting was over a relationship problem;
  • All had experienced childhood depression;
  • About 85 percent had been sexually or physically molested.

Subsequently, the task force was invited to the White House to meet with the president and his cabinet for a roundtable discussion on school violence. During a three-hour meeting the president listened intently to the task force's recommendation for federal funding for early prevention and intervention programs in schools.

It was clear to me that our federal leaders are beginning to understand the need for early intervention programs at the local level in our elementary schools, as well as after-school programs and holistic services for students today.

Federal Support
At the first White House Conference on School Safety last October, President Clinton announced his intent to place 100,000 teachers in K-3 classrooms during the next seven years and provide $600 million to redesign and fund the U.S. Department of Education's Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities Project. Teachers know that smaller class sizes are essential to a safe learning environment at this age.

The U.S. Department of Education issued its first annual "Report on School Safety" at the conference (available over the Internet at www.ed.gov/pubs/AnnSchoolRept98/). Other materials on safe schools and early warning signals are available at www.ed.gov/offices/OSERS/OSEP/earlywrn.html.

Federal initiatives include a number of funded programs and policy directives that local school leaders can apply to their own violence prevention work:

  • Enforcing zero tolerance for guns on school property by enacting state laws while promoting blended sentencing for juvenile offenders tried as adults. This is being advocated by educators and law enforcement agencies;
  • Providing support for civic, community and faith-based organizations to initiate a values-based violence prevention initiative;
  • Providing safe after-school opportunities to half a million children a year;
  • Cracking down on truancy;
  • Encouraging schools to adopt school uniform policies;
  • Supporting curfews at the local level;
  • Developing a comprehensive anti-gang effort;
  • Supporting stricter enforcement of laws to keep weapons away from children and for legislation that places child safety locking devices on guns; and
  • Providing $143.5 million to help community coalitions rid their streets of drugs and combat youth alcohol and tobacco abuse.
A Shared Experience
The White House summit concluded with the pledges by the president, vice president, attorney general and education secretary to provide funding for early intervention, smaller class sizes, well-prepared teachers, replacement of deteriorating school facilities and after-school programs.

As principal of Margaret Leary Elementary School, I witnessed the horror of school violence and shared the terrible experience of the loss of a child. Yet today I am honored to be able to apply this experience to help other educational leaders improve school safety for all of our children, here in Montana and nationwide.

Kate Stetzner, a national speaker on school safety, is superintendent of the Butte Public Schools, 111 N. Montana St., Butte, MT 59701. E-mail: stetzner@montana.com. She is the only school leader appointed to the Presidential Task Force on Youth Violence. Stetzner's article is based on an earlier publication of the Montana Prevention Resource Center.