Summit centers on school safety
CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Several themes emerged Wednesday during an all-day summit at the Culture Center focused on making schools safer: collaboration, relationships, prevention and preparation.
Educators and law enforcement officers alike agreed all are important if communities want to prevent tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The December murder of 26 people prompted U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin to organize the Wednesday event. Open for anyone to attend and streamed live on the Internet, Goodwin said input from everyone was the point.
"We hope that through this, it's really been the beginning of the discussion, the catalyst, the jumping off point for more interaction to take place over the coming months." Goodwin said to conclude the summit.
Nearly 20 people spoke during the summit. Following opening remarks from Goodwin and state Superintendent Jim Phares, Sandy Hook resident and Weirton native Lisa Petrovich spoke about her community.
She had close relationships with many of the adults who died in the massacre, and her message was clear: if it could happen in Sandy Hook, it could happen anywhere.
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, the featured speaker, gave his thoughts on ways for communities to prevent and prepare for such events. In addition to making schools less accessible with locking exterior and interior doors, Grossman said an armed guard is a vital deterrent and asset in the event of an attacker.
He also repeatedly addressed the critical connection he sees between violent video games and television and negative student behavior. Citing a 2001 study by Stanford University, he said students learn to associate pleasure with the violence they see in video games and on TV. He thinks a "detox" period from TV can help make students mentally and physically healthier.
The afternoon was devoted to three separate panels, with each discussing specific school safety aspects.
Preparation and response by everyone in a community can make all the difference in a threatening situation, according to the first summit panel.
It's important for the buildings themselves to be safe, said Mark Manchin, executive director of the state School Building Authority. The authority has allocated millions of dollars for better locks, doors, cameras and other security measures.
Those dollars have dried up and Kanawha County Schools need to replace dozens of locks on classroom doors.
Manchin discussed a new mechanism for keeping buildings safe: safety film for windows.
Placed over the glass, the thin sheet of film helps prevent a window from shattering when hit. That means anything from a bullet to a baseball bat to a bomb: Manchin showed a video of a window with the film as a bomb went off nearby. The glass broke, but the bulk did not leave the pane itself.
The idea came up after the Sandy Hook massacre, Manchin said. In that case, the building had a keyless entry system, but the attacker shot his way through a window. The film can provide the extra seconds needed for law enforcement to arrive at a dangerous scene, Manchin said.
"You know what they want? Three to five minutes. That's a long time, I know it doesn't sound like it, but you've got to keep him out for three to five minutes," Manchin said.
Manchin had a staff member test the material by shooting panes of glass with and without it. He brought in the pane with the film: the bullet went through, but the window was still essentially intact.
He wants the film on every first-floor window for every new school or major renovation project in the state. The authority has already spoken with 3M, the maker of the material, and a local company that can install it.
While 3M promised to give the authority a deal on the price, he said it could cost close to $50,000 to equip one school. He said he might bring the idea to the Legislature, and would definitely bring it before the authority board during its March meeting.
In the event an attacker makes it into the building, it's crucial to have a safety plan that's simple and practiced, said Capt. David Lee, commandant of the State Police Academy. Adj. Gen. James Hoyer, head of the state National Guard, said it's important for emergency responders and school personnel alike to practice their plans in case there is a threat.
School psychologists and counselors discussed the importance of creating a welcoming atmosphere for students.
Chris Schimmel, a West Virginia University professor who focuses on school counseling, talked about a recent project at Lincoln High School in Harrison County. Note cards with the names of each student were placed around a room, and teachers were asked to put a dot on the card of each student about which they knew something.
"At the end of that activity, there were still a significant amount of cards around that room that had no dot. Those are the kids I'm worried are at risk of violence, committing violence, being isolated, dropping out of school, suffering from depression," Schimmel said.
After the activity, teachers agreed to mentor the students who didn't have dots next to their names.
More interaction has several affects, panelists said: students feel more comfortable at school and could tell teachers or trusted adults about perceived threats. It also lets teachers look out for behaviors that might be warning signs for violent activity, said psychologist George Damous.
Damous runs Damous Psychological Services, the company Kanawha County Schools uses for a great deal of its mental health offerings. He said it's important for adults to notice abnormal behaviors - outbursts, cruelty to animals, a sudden drop in grades - and to track those behaviors over time. It doesn't mean the student will necessarily commit any terrible act, but Damous said it makes it easier for adults to help students down the road.
School-based health clinics have been a great asset, said Jackie Payne, an administrator in the state Department of Health and Human Resources.
Students, regardless of family income, have better access to physical and mental health care, Payne said.
Mellow Lee, principal of Mary C. Snow West Side Elementary School, attended the event and said her parents and students love the school's health clinic. It provides only physical health services right now, and Lee eventually would like to see mental health services offered.
Goodwin said his office would take all of the information discussed Wednesday as well as suggestions from those not in attendance and compile a report. Video of the panels and speakers will be available online.