Safer schools are the Columbine legacy

Thursday, April 23, 2009

It was 10 years ago that the eyes of the American public were glued to TV sets, watching the shocking media coverage of the Columbine High School shootings.

The main questions running through the public's mind were: "How could these kids commit such a horrific crime? And in Small Town, USA, where violence is virtually non-existent?"

Since April 20, 1999 and particularly immediately afterward, law enforcement personnel, school administrators, politicians and experts launched an aggressive assault against school violence. The objective was to make schools safer and ease the minds of parents, who now had to wonder if dropping their children off at school meant they would never see them again.

The route to safer school systems is through awareness, states Phil Chalmers, a law enforcement trainer and expert on teen violence.

Here in Putnam County, the local school corporations take the issue very seriously. While none of the schools have an active anonymous tip line set up for students to use to report threats of violence or red-flag behavior to fellow students, all of them take tips through the front office.

Sonny Stoltz, principal at Cloverdale High School, says students will tell a teacher or administrator should something feel out of place. He says there is an open line of communication with parents as well. CHS is proactive in following up on tips, he added.

Greencastle High School principal Jim Church says they have "excellent student cooperation" when it comes to students reporting red-flag behavior.

For security, all schools are locked down during the school day. Most have student access only in the morning. GHS performs lock down drills on a regular basis throughout the school year.

Most of the community schools use off-duty officers when needed. South Putnam High School utilizes the Putnam County Sheriff's Office; GHS has Russ Hesler, assistant principal, for security issues; and North Putnam High School and CHS uses local officers on a need-to-need basis.

In addition to lock downs and investigating tips of red-flag behavior, bullying has been shown as the No. 1 cause of school massacres. Schools that take this issue very seriously have been found to be safer.

When it comes to bullying, each school has an anti-bullying policy. NPHS principal Alan Zerkel says all schools are constantly working on dealing with situations on a daily basis.

At GHS, Church says there has been a diversity council and peer panel put in place this year.

"We have been very proactive this year," he added.

Ten years later, high school principals are still trying to learn from Columbine. Evidence has shown both of the Columbine shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, exhibited behavioral red flags that, though some individuals may have noticed, nobody did anything about.

Some warning signs include threats of violence or suicide, fascination with violent imagery and violent entertainment and displaying violent verbiage on social networks, Web sites and personal journals.

Parents and community members alike are urged to ask questions and stay engaged with local schools to make sure safety is a priority.

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