Superintendent's Message: Ensuring Safe Schools for Gwinnett Students
|Superintendent's Message: Ensuring Safe Schools for Gwinnett Students|
As parents, educators, and community members, all of us were deeply touched by the tragic events that took place in Littleton, Colorado, on April 20. Our sympathy and prayers go out to the victims and their families. The tragedy at Columbine High School was another stark reminder that violent acts can happen anywhere. Places where we would never think about it happening-- churches, shopping malls, schools, the U.S. Capitol-- are not immune to acts of violence.
Until a couple of years ago, these crimes were generally the work of disturbed individuals or groups external to the school. But 18 months ago, the scenario changed. We began to see students inflicting harm and death upon other students and adults. The perpetrator of schoolhouse violence was no longer an adult unknown to students at the school, but one of them-- a fellow student.
It began in October of 1997, when a 16-year-old male student in Pearl, Mississippi, launched a series of well-publicized school tragedies. In response, school officials across the nation reviewed their policies, procedures, and actions regarding school security. The tragic events sparked a heightened awareness and concern on the part of parents and the community at large. It prompted many to wonder and ask what could be done.
We in Gwinnett County Public Schools are among those searching for ways to make sure our schools and campuses are safe. Student safety is of such importance that it is the focus of one of the school system’s 10 strategic goals, and something we work on every day. However, we know it is not enough that our schools be safe; they also must be perceived to be safe by those who use and visit them. For that reason, we strive to answer two questions that are both appropriate and timely:
- How do we implement tougher security, closer monitoring of problem students, and timely interventions while keeping our schools inviting, open places for learning?
- How do we react without overreacting?
We have received many calls from parents and citizens asking what we are doing in light of the Littleton tragedy. I can assure parents we are doing everything we can to ensure the safety and well-being of their children. We began reviewing our safety plans over two years ago and are continuing to develop new procedures and modify existing ones. Measures currently in place include the following:
- School resource officers assigned to each cluster
- Zero tolerance for drugs, weapons, gangs, and hate groups
- Confidential hotline for students and adults to call and report any suspicious behavior
- School emergency/crisis response teams at each school
- Classroom callback buttons
- Safety plans and checklists for all schools
- Student support teams at each school to help students who are experiencing difficulty
- Guide to help staff recognize troubled students
- Systemwide Crisis Management Manual (now under revision)
- Students who care about their schools and are encouraged to report any behavior or action they suspect to be a safety issue
- Dedicated phone line for the principal’s use in emergencies
- Walkie-talkies for school-wide communications.
Individually, our schools also have clearly established protocols for dealing with possible tragic events. Procedures call for involving appropriate outside agencies, such as police, fire department and emergency response units, and our internal safety and security personnel.
In addition, last fall we appointed a cross-functional action team composed of parents, a police department representative, a security executive from a large corporation, principals, social workers, counselors, teachers, and the school system’s directors of safety and student discipline. Members reviewed the system’s policy, procedures, and practices regarding safe and secure schools. The team reported its findings to the Board of Education at the May 13 meeting. The recommendations will be valuable as we continue to improve our efforts and effectiveness in the area of school safety.
What we want every parent to know is that we put the safety of students first in all that we do. We are prepared to deal with those who will test our resolve to provide safe schools and are bent on causing disruptions. We will respond to their actions swiftly and decisively and seek punishment to the fullest extent under the law. Today is no time to threaten to put children in harm’s way, or to be disruptive under the guise of having fun. Any such misbehavior will be dealt with through the criminal justice system and our student disciplinary policies.
In closing, I commend our personnel who performed admirably amid the disruptions and challenges of the past weeks. Our students, many of whom understandably were concerned, conducted themselves in a mature and respectful manner that allowed schools to operate and learning to continue. Likewise, the police and fire units that responded when we needed them worked quickly to ensure safety and restore calm. To each of these I extend my sincerest thanks.
In addition, I thank our parents and community for your assistance and understanding, and for trusting that we will not only educate, but also protect, your children while they are in our care. Because of the work we do together, Gwinnett’s schools provide the safe environment our students need and deserve.
* As printed in the May 9, 1999, issue of the Gwinnett Daily Post