Sunday, August 01, 1999

Back to school: chalk dust, gunpowder




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        You didn't need to know the title of the seminar to appreciate what one of the speakers called the “pinch-me factor.” All you had to do is look around the parking lot.

        The first car I saw was a red Durango with Indiana plates picturing Garfield holding some books in front of a red schoolhouse. The second one was a police cruiser with a gun rack.

        Pinch me. This is a terrible dream.

Disguising a duck
        The Sharonville Convention Center last week was the site of a workshop on education, advice about how to survive the coming school year. Experts talked about safety. And by that, I don't mean running with scissors. They discussed guns and knives. They were there to talk about crime when the perps are students. Kids.

        The place was packed. The organizers — the FBI and Tri-State Regional Community Policing Institute (RCPI) — had to turn people away. This is not the first seminar on violence in schools, but it's the first one since Columbine. RCPI wound up with 1,280 reservations and had to pare that back to about 1,000.

        “The day it happened, the day of the shootings,” said Roger McHugh of RCPI, “the fax started pumping and just never stopped.” He said he is hoping to “write teaching modules off what we learn.”

        This is Back to School for the next millennium. “Juvenile Violence in Our Schools — Are We Ready?” was the title of the seminar, organized for police officers and educators.

        “It's like bringing Al Sharpton and David Duke in for a dance,” said Roger Effron, a former principal and the only educator to address the group. He says police officers in the school should wear their uniforms. “I say, don't disguise a duck.”

        Forest Park Police Chief Ken Hughes is of the opinion that “you don't have to put an officer in a uniform for the kids to know who she is.” He says he thinks the uniform might be a barrier to trust. He says he thinks “kids will become partners in making their environment safe.”

        I think I am in the Twilight Zone, the Geezer Back to School Twilight Zone. New saddle shoes. That's what back to school meant to me. Chalk dust. And for my teachers, dusting off lesson plans. Uniforms meant plaid pleated skirts.

        Now teachers are learning to sniff out contraband — not gum or cigarettes but drugs and weapons. Dress codes? They are being counseled to “require that all shirts be tucked in to help prevent hidden weapons being brought into classrooms.”

Sawed-off shotgun
        The keynote speaker was Jefferson County (Colo.) Sheriff John Stone, who led the investigation after the Columbine High School massacre. He said charges could yet be filed against the parents of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, who shot and killed 12 students and a teacher on April 20.

        “The core of this goes to the basic deterioration of the family. There's no secret that these kids — if you looked at their rooms — were up to something. A standard kid doesn't have a sawed-off shotgun on his dresser and gunpowder.”

        The workbook for the session included sample letters to parents outlining at-risk behavior and tips. It does not tell the teachers and cops how to get parents to read the letters.

        Jean Wesseler of Fairfield was a teacher for 15 years before joining law enforcement. She's called a juvenile diversion counselor, but it sounds as though she spends a lot of time counseling adults. “Parents need to stop being friends and start being disciplinarians.”

        She says the conference on violence makes her “feel hopeful.” And I am trying very hard to feel hopeful too. A roomful of cops and teachers are earnestly taking notes and trading war stories. They are trying, they say, to form partnerships. With each other. With the kids. It's a nice start. But they can't do it without the rest of us. Especially us parents.

        And if we don't know it, then we really do need a good pinch.

        E-mail Laura Pulfer at lpulfer@enquirer.com or call 768-8393. Author of I Beg to Differ, she appears regularly on WVXU radio, NPR's Morning Edition and InterMedia's Northern Kentucky Magazine. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com

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