Summit shatters school safety myths, shares lessons from Columbine tragedy

CULLOWHEE – Some 600 school administrators, law enforcement officials, educators and students gathered Thursday, Nov. 14, at Western Carolina University to exchange ideas on how to combat the problem of violence in the nation’s public schools.

The most important step, according to several speakers at the daylong summit sponsored by the N.C. Governor’s Crime Commission, is to realize it will take a collaborative effort among the schools, law enforcement, the court system, church and community to stem the tide of student violence.

“There is a myth that we cannot do anything about school violence. The fact is, we can do a lot,” Western Carolina Chancellor John W. Bardo said in remarks to open the summit, organized by the university’s Public Policy Institute. “We seem to make these assumptions that bullying has been around forever, that it just happens. We seem to be saying, ‘Well, society isn’t what it used to be. The families are breaking down, and there’s just not much we can do about it.’ You all are coming together today to document that we can do something about it. You all are showing that, by working together, you believe we can create a better environment in our schools, and that taking action is far better than a passive, ‘oh well.’”

Marilyn Saltzman, director of communication for the Jefferson County (Colo.) school system, speaks about her experiences at the Columbine tragedy.

Marilyn Saltzman, director of communication for the Jefferson County (Colo.) school system, speaks about her experiences at the Columbine tragedy.

Among the conference speakers was Marilyn Saltzman, who, as director of communication for the Jefferson County (Colo.) School System, was on the scene of the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history – Columbine High School, on April 20, 1999.

“If there is one thing you take away from me today, it’s this: Don’t say it can’t happen here. It can happen anywhere,” Saltzman said, reminding the crowd that three-quarters of Columbine’s student body went on to post-secondary education, and the school’s average daily attendance rate was 95 percent. “Columbine was a suburban school full of high-achieving students. We didn’t think anything like that could happen there.”

In her talk, titled “Lessons from the Columbine Tragedy,” Saltzman urged the crowd to pay attention to potential early warning signs, such as bullying or other aggressive and harassing behavior. Recent research from the U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education indicates that the majority of perpetrators in past school shootings felt bullied, attacked or threatened by other students, she said.

“We must create an atmosphere where kids feel safe to tell adults that someone acted in a way that threatened them,” Saltzman said. “We all grew up in a world where you don’t tattle, you don’t rat. We live in a different world now. We need kids to tell us when they hear of things that worry them, when they think one of their classmates is having a problem.”

That’s where the notion of community collaboration and intervention among schools, parents and community is so important, she said. “If you have a kid who is getting in trouble in school on Friday, at the mall on Saturday, and in church on Sunday, it is important that we can all talk together so that we can hopefully intervene on behalf of that student.”

George Sweat, secretary of the N.C. Department of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention, commended Western’s Public Policy Institute for bringing together so many people from across North Carolina and adjoining states to work collaboratively. “The real success of this summit will be the exchange of information among participants about what is and what is not working. We need to make N.C. schools safer. Our schools are safe, but they are not as safe as we want them to be,” Sweat said in the summit’s keynote address.

“For better or worse, like it or not, we really are inter-dependent, all of us – law enforcement, schools, courts, parents, students, the church and many, many others. We are in this together. We can’t choose to ignore the problem. We cannot point fingers of blame at each other. We must do something about it. We must dare to share our collective knowledge about what works and what doesn’t work. We need to knock down those turf walls that exist,” he said.

The summit consisted of three panels of experts examining issues of school violence, followed by panel discussions and recommendations for initiatives to improve school safety. A policy report will be issued at a later date.