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As we prepare to reopen schools after the holiday recess, I want to share some thoughts about the safety of our schools.
The incident that took place on December 14th at the Sandy Hook Elementary School was horrifying. The fact that 20 of the gunman’s victims were first grade students made parents across our nation wonder if their children can be safe when they go off to school. It made those of us who work in education realize how vulnerable schools can be if someone really wants to exact violence in a school. As pointed out in the many special reports following the tragedy, there is no one answer or solution that will prevent this from occurring in another school. I believe, however, that if we work together as educators, parents, communities, law enforcement, and our elected representatives at the state and national level, we can make it much harder for a similar incident to occur. None of these groups can do it alone; we must work together to prevent this from happening again.
I was interviewed by a newspaper reporter the Monday after the tragedy about our response. I shared the message that I sent to all parents and staff the day after the incident that included resources for parents on how to talk with their children about what happened. My message also offered the services of our counselors to any student who “is experiencing difficulty understanding or coping with this news.” I reminded parents that we work closely with both police departments who cover the school district and that I had spoken with both police chiefs about the incident and the security of our schools that very morning.
The last part of my message to parents focused on the role that each one of us, including our students, play in keeping our schools safe. I asked parents to “remind your children that if they hear anyone, including another child, make a comment that they feel is threatening to someone else, or about the school, they should tell their teacher or any staff member at the school.” This is a theme that I emphasize at the beginning of each school year with my staff. I tell them that no matter their role, whether they are a bus driver, a food service worker, a custodian, or a teacher, they all play a part in keeping our schools safe. Research has shown that students who feel that they have a least one person who cares and listens to them are less likely to become violent either to others or themselves. I encourage all of our employees to be friendly with students, to show that they care and are interested in them. This gives students multiple adults in school with whom they can share concerns or frustrations. This also provides the school with opportunities to obtain help for a student who is going through some tough times.
Parents have become a tremendous resource for information on student conflicts. By monitoring their children’s online activity, many parents have notified the school about problems that occur outside of school so that we can prevent the conflict from spilling over in school. Cyber bullying has become a major concern of parents and school personnel. Through joint effort, parents and the school can help prevent problems from escalating.
This tragedy in Connecticut has also stimulated a review of our security procedures. As I visited each of our schools on the first school day after the tragedy, I met with each principal to discuss our current security procedures and to brainstorm ways that we can improve our security. Principals also met with their staff for their suggestions. Parents have also provided a number of suggestions. We have regular communication with our local police departments and coordinate our security drills to enable their participation and feedback. As I mentioned in my column published this past August, we have requested that the Pennsylvania State Police complete a security assessment at four of our buildings this school year. This will complete security assessments in all of our buildings since they previously completed an assessment of the middle school.
This cooperation with other agencies is not limited to law enforcement. We are also working with groups who either use our facilities or provide services to our students. I have recently met with the director of the Tri Valley YMCA to strengthen the security of students and staff who come early or stay late for child care. We are also participating in the county-wide All Hazards Planning that involves schools, law enforcement agencies, fire departments and emergency medical personnel. We also meet a few times each year with local ministers about the needs of students and the community. Last school year, the ministerium sponsored a parent workshop on bullying.
Lastly, we all must advocate for support from our elected representatives. One theme we have seen with mass shootings is that many of the perpetrators of these crimes have mental health problems. We need to make certain that at-risk individuals receive the support and services that they need and do not have access to weapons.
I would like to thank the Fleetwood community for their continued support of our schools and for helping to keep our students safe.
Upcoming Events in the Fleetwood Area School District
Jan. 2 – School Re-opens
Jan. 18 – Emergency Closing Make-Up Day, School is in session
Jan. 21 – Martin Luther King Holiday – Teacher In-Service, No School for Students
Jan. 31 – Financial Aid Night for High School Students pursuing Higher Education, 6:30 p.m.
The Board of School Directors will hold meetings on Jan. 8 and 15 at 7 p.m.
Dr. Paul Eaken is superintendent of Fleetwood Area School District.