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Ten years after Columbine: school safety remains priority

Ten years ago, the United States was rocked by the unthinkable: a horrific school shooting in Littleton, Colo. The events at Columbine High School, while neither the deadliest, nor the first or last, triggered a change in schools across the country. No school, parent, student or community likes to think there is even a remote possibility that such an event could occur around them, but the facts are, it could and it has. At the front lines of this battle are school counselors.

The Mercer Island School District works together with counselors from the city’s Youth and Family Services (YFS) office, putting counselors directly in the path of students. Cathy Gentino and Chris Harnish are counselors with YFS who work out of the Resource and Referral Place at the high school, offering individual and family counseling, among many other services for students.

In the past 10 years, both Gentino and Harnish, along with Deborah Kraft, a guidance counselor at MIHS, said they have seen many changes to how schools respond and prepare for such emergencies.

All three stressed the importance in their daily schedule of connecting with students and creating relationships so that students feel comfortable coming to talk, or accessing the services which R&R Place offers. One way that MIHS has gone about fostering those relationships is through the Bridges program. Students connect with each other in groups of 17 to 25 every Monday, along with a staff advisor.

“In the beginning, it started because kids said they felt there wasn’t a connection,” said Kraft. “We’re much more aware and alert, and trying to connect in as many ways as we can.”

Another major change in many schools post-Columbine was locking building doors. For years, campus comings and goings had few regulations. Limiting access to one or two points has helped reduce foot traffic and given officials an easier way to see who comes and goes. Visit any school campus these days, and signs will be posted reminding all visitors and parents to check in at the office, a policy that many districts have always had, but only recently have begun to enforce.

Over the years, Kraft said the visitor’s pass has gotten more attention, and is one which is more strongly enforced than it would have been 10 years ago. One step MISD has not taken, unlike other districts in the area, is requiring staff or student ID badges. Kraft said she also knows of districts which have banned students from wearing hoods or hats while at school.

Most districts and schools have policies in place for emergencies and practice lockdowns. These drills simulate what students and staff do during an emergency. John Harrison, principal at MIHS, said the school practices lockdowns four or five times a year, as well as other types of evacuations, such as if there was an earthquake or other emergency situations. Once a year, the school’s emergency preparedness plan gets updated. Harrison said a team of staff members who are on the emergency preparedness team meet regularly and debrief following events. Harrison said that following the events at Columbine, the overall shift has been toward prevention and focusing on at-risk behaviors to keep them from becoming something dangerous.

The district also has access to a school resource officer, a member of the Mercer Island Police Department. Art Munoz, the current resource officer, works to establish fundamental relationships with students.

Harnish said the district also employs a “pretty extensive” policy relating to students who might be at risk of violence, or who exhibit other concerning behavior. This helps the district and school determine what steps should be taken, including whether or not the student should be referred to outside counseling.

In the past 10 years, whether it is because of the natural evolution of counseling or because of long-term effects from Columbine, districts have recognized the importance of letting students talk.

“The school district has been much better about letting counselors counsel. I know I feel very lucky we have the time to meet with kids,” said Kraft of changes over the last 10 years.

One of the important lessons which comes up time and time again is the fact that an incident can take place even where it is least expected.

“It really raises awareness that it can happen anywhere,” Gentino said about both the shootings at Columbine and the incident recently in Graham, Wash., where five children and their father died in a murder/suicide shooting.

An area of concern drawing more attention recently is bullying, specifically the types which take place online or via text messaging. All three counselors said they feel like the district is spending more time training teachers on how to recognize signs of bullying and what to do with those cases, which helps a great deal in combating the problem.

“The administration is consistent in taking it seriously,” said Kraft. Harnish stressed that the goal is to help students get through bullying.

“I think our students are good about knowing when it’s time to get help,” said Gentino. Kraft said one of the biggest deterrents against bullying is a policy in place at the high school, which takes away a student’s parking space if they are caught bullying another student.

YFS has had counselors at the high school since 1979 and from there expanded the service to the other schools. Now each school in the district has at least one counselor available to talk with students on a regular basis.

“We feel very lucky,” said Kraft about the partnership between the district and YFS.

“It breaks the barrier,” said Harnish about being located at the school. “This way, they don’t have to get on a bus or schedule an appointment.” Gentino, Kraft and Harnish said the foot traffic in and out of their offices is heavy on a daily basis.

For anyone in the community who has a concern about a student or family, contact YFS or the school’s counselors.

“We wouldn’t be here, doing this, if we didn’t like kids,” said Kraft.

Gentino said that, as a counselor, she often tells people that even if they are not sure there is a problem, consulting with someone can determine if another step is needed. For students wishing to speak with someone, the R&R Place is open during school hours, but there is also the Natural Helpers program at MIHS, a group of students identified by their peers as being leaders in the school.

YFS also hopes to engage teens in discussions about other aspects of teen life. During the Youth Summit, taking place on April 26 at the Community Center at Mercer View from 3 to 5 p.m., high school students will have a chance to speak about teen drinking and drug use on the Island during facilitated conversations. The event, done in conjunction with the Communities that Care Cafe Conversation, for adults, is for high school students.

“[It’s] really giving youth an opportunity to express their perceptions on the drug and alcohol situation on Mercer Island,” said Michelle Morse, the youth development director with YFS. Any student interested in attending should RSVP to Morse by Wednesday, April 22, by e-mailing michelle.morse@mercergov.org.

The Summit posits questions such as: what changed between middle school and high school to make drugs and alcohol use OK, what teens think about consequences for getting caught drinking on the Island, and what those consequences are and how they vary depending on who catches them.

Cindy Goodwin, the director of YFS, said the department will wait to see how budget reductions shake out at both the city and the school district before any discussions on changes to services will be had.

Resources:

If you suspect child abuse or neglect, contact DSHS at 1-866-363-4276 and visit www.dshs.wa.gov/geninfo/endharm.html for signs to look out for. Contact the Children’s Response Center at (425) 688-5130 for crisis intervention and other information.

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