Advertisement

Archive for Sunday, August 22, 1999

DISTRICT SEEKS TO BOLSTER SECURITY

August 22, 1999

Advertisement

The Lawrence school district so far has been spared extreme violence. But some new, low-key safety measures will be implemented this year.

Two 7-year-old boys beat a child in their first-grade class at East Heights School in February.

About the same time, a 13-year-old girl brought an unloaded .22-caliber revolver to West Junior High School.

In 1998, a parent threatened to shoot then-Lawrence Supt. Al Azinger. And a 12-year-old student at Kennedy School shoved a teacher and yelled obscenities at two others after kicking the walls of a "quiet room."

No one was killed in the incidents. No pipe bombs ripped through buildings. No shots were fired. No need for memorial services or funerals.

The Lawrence school district hasn't witnessed the level of schoolhouse violence that tortured residents of Littleton, Colo.; Jonesboro, Ark.; Conyers, Ga.; West Paducah, Ky.; and other U.S. cities.

But widespread in Lawrence schools, police and school officials say, are petty theft, vandalism, threats, and harassment and intimidation of students and staff.

This lack of civility is a pale problem compared to extreme violence, which to date has not visited Lawrence schools.

"I'm not convinced we have a significant problem," said Lawrence Supt. Kathleen Williams. "We have a lot of great kids in our district."

But all schools have troublemakers, Williams said, and "I think there are teachers who are afraid."

Lawrence reforms

District officials are taking steps to improve school safety in the academic year that begins Monday. But they are more low-key than dramatic.

Tom Bracciano, supervisor of safety, said more external doors will be locked while classes are in session. That reduces opportunities for people to slip unnoticed into schools.

"We'll funnel all traffic by the office, where they'll sign in and obtain a visitor's badge," he said.

School building crisis plans were reviewed this summer, but there aren't plans to embrace technological approaches adopted by some other districts. Forty-eight security cameras were recently installed at Shawnee Mission West High in Overland Park, following the lead of the Blue Valley district. Other schools routinely deploy metal detectors.

Bracciano said cameras had been installed previously in some Lawrence buildings, but video systems aren't an integral part of the district's security scheme. Metal detectors aren't part of the mix at all, he said.

The Lawrence Police Department this summer expanded special response training in the district. The superintendent gave Chief Ron Olin broad latitude to conduct exercises on evenings and weekends in 25 school buildings. Officers previously had trained at Lawrence High but extended that work to Free State High.

"I've asked them to continue to do that in light of societal changes," Williams said.

As in the past few years, the department's student resource officers will return as visible presences in high school hallways and parking lots.

Brian Jiminez will be at Free State, while Larry Hamilton will be at LHS. The armed officers enforce criminal statutes, not school policies.

The department would expand the program to the four junior high schools, if funding were available, police officials said.

The Lawrence Education Assn., which represents the district's 875 teachers, formed a special committee to study safety issues in light of recent school shootings elsewhere.

"We're thinking of safety in different ways. We have to," said LEA President Wayne Kruse, who also teaches third grade at Quail Run School.

Insecure at school

The State of Our Nation's Youth survey by the Horatio Alger Assn. found 37 percent of 1,327 U.S. teen-agers always felt safe in their schools, compared with 44 percent of students last year.

In a survey of 630 parents of children ages 6 to 17, a majority supported random locker searches, more police in schools, metal detectors and introduction of school uniforms or dress codes.

"It's such an overwhelming concern of everyone in this community," Lawrence school board member Scott Morgan said.

State politicians in Kansas heard that call. The 1999 Legislature and Gov. Bill Graves collaborated on a new law that requires the added punishment of a one-year driver's license suspension for any student caught with a weapon at school.

"It will have a positive effect on students' actions," Dale Dennis, state deputy education commissioner, said of the new law.

The state also established a school safety hotline. The toll-free number -- 1-877-626-8203 -- allows students and parents to anonymously report potential trouble.

Never ready for Columbine

Olin said law enforcement can't prevent the type of assault that transpired at Columbine High in Littleton, Colo., in which two teen-agers tossed pipe bombs and used four weapons to kill 13 people and themselves this spring.

"These are not common criminal acts," he said. "We train for that in the community, but it's not school-specific. We're pretty confident we've done adequate preparation for our community."

Robert Harrington, a Kansas University professor of education, said a significant obstacle to addressing safety problems in schools is convincing superintendents and principals to acknowledge problems and share information with the larger community.

"A lot of districts want to put their head in the sand and say, 'It won't happen here.' To think Lawrence has no weapons in school is absurd," Harrington said.

In addition to anticipating unusual violent episodes, Harrington said, districts need prevention and early intervention programs for common discipline problems. Teasing, bullying and aggression must not be ignored, he said.

Williams said Lawrence schools have a range of programs designed to moderate behavior and resolve conflict. Administrators, teachers, counselors, psychologists, nurses, social workers and police officers work with students in the schools. But no public school system can afford one-on-one instruction to keep a student in line all day, she said.

"I don't know how we could play a bigger role," she said. "Our primary role is education, but we have kids coming in with more and more emotional baggage.

"Their No. 1 teacher in life is the parent. If they acquire values not in keeping with the social good, they reflect it in school. Our job is to make school a safe place to learn, but schools are not prisons. We can't do it all."

-- Tim Carpenter's phone message number is 832-7155. His e-mail address is tcarpenter@ljworld.com.

Commenting has been disabled for this item.