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Friday, October 13, 2006

Parents and students hold the keys to school safety

If we had lulled ourselves into thinking a school tragedy couldn't happen here, because of our small, close-knit communities, the deadly school shootings of two weeks ago should be a wake up call.

Consider this: Platte Canyon High School in Colorado, where a gunman shot and killed one student before killing himself has a student population of about 450. That's half the size of Delavan-Darien High School.

Weston High School, where principal John Klang was shot and killed while trying to wrestle a gun away from a student has a student population of around 140. That's smaller than Williams Bay High School.

And if we thought smaller schools were safer, the shootings of five young girls in a Pennsylvania Amish one-room schoolhouse proves that idea to be a myth.

As writers Donna Lenz Wright and Chris Schultz found out when reporting this week's cover story, schools are reviewing their safety policies and procedures.

Keep in mind however, that safety isn't something that schools began thinking about two weeks ago.

For years, police liaison officers have been a part of the larger districts.

Photographer Terry Mayer tagged along with officer Michele Martin of the Whitewater School District last week. Mayer found that even though school shootings are in the news, liaison officers remain responsible for dealing with a wide range of safety and security issues.

However, officers can't be everywhere all the time.

Sometimes it is a simple action that makes the difference.

Here are two things those of us with school-aged kids should do:

First, we need to participate in our school's security procedures.

How many times have you gone into your child's school and not bothered to check in at the office?

I know I'm guilty.

Heck, most of the staff knows me by now (although my sons don't go to school in Walworth County, I suspect this happens everywhere.)

It seems an inconvenience to stop at the office and sign in if I'm only going to be there for a few minutes.

But that lax attitude promotes a false sense of security.

As more parents are in schools without proper ID, it becomes increasingly difficult for teachers and staff members to identify who should not be there.

Before we know it, nobody is keeping track of who is in our schools. In fact, that remains a focus of the Colorado investigation; how was the gunman able to freely make his way through that high school.

Second, engage your kids in talking about what's going on in their school.

We don't have to expect our kids to be a hero, like Matt Atkinson, the student who told school officials what he had heard about a deadly plot at Green Bay East High School.

But we can let them know that it's O.K. to talk about what they've heard at school.

Granted, that's easier said than done.

I know our kids clam up because they fear that if they talk to us, we'll go shouting it around they school and everyone will know they said something.

Kids need to be reassured that they can tell their parents of concerns and their parents will respect their privacy while at the same time making sure that dangerous situations are addressed.

We also need to let our kids know that even if something they hear sounds like a harmless prank, adults are capable of making reasonable judgments and not, "flipping out over nothing," as my son would say.

The sad truth for risk-averse Americans is that some things are just not preventable.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't do what we can to avoid tragedy. Sometimes it's the simple things that mean the most.

~Dan Plutchak, editor


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