Saturday, September 02, 2000

School violence summit spotlights warning signs

Students urged to be watchful

By Patrick Crowley
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        UNION, Ky. — Veteran educator Fred Bernier can remember when a talk about school safety focused on traffic, not weapons.

        “I began my career as a teacher in 1966,” Mr. Bernier told students Friday at Boone County's Ryle High School, where he serves as assistant principal. “School safety was designed so you could get in and out of the parking lot without having a wreck. Students did not bring guns to school. Parents always felt their children were safe in school.”

        But times have changed. After several tragic, well-publicized instances of school shootings and other violence, education officials, law enforcement and other public officials are trying to take a more proactive approach in dealing with safety among the nation's youth.

        Preventing shootings and other school violence was the topic of a “School Safety Summit” a number of officials and students attended Friday at Ryle, a large public high school in Union.

        Ryle is a school that has been touched by student violence.

        In 1994 Clay Shrout took his math class at Ryle hostage after killing his parents and two sisters in their Boone County home. He surrendered without incident and is serving a sentence of life in prison without parole for 25 years in the state prison at Eddyville in far western Kentucky.

        The meeting was organized by U.S. Rep. Ken Lucas of Boone County, a Democrat running for re-election who represents Northern Kentucky's 4th Congressional District.

        “Too often politicians try to legislate away problems,” Mr. Lucas told an assembly of the school's senior class. “But this isn't a legislative problem; it's a societal one.

        “Parents, teachers, students, all of us must redouble our efforts to heed the warning signs before us,” Mr. Lucas said.

        Despite the warnings and the instances of horrific school violence — including mass shootings at schools in Kentucky, Arkansas, Colorado and other places — some Ryle students said they aren't concerned about being attacked or shot at their school.

        “I don't worry about violence at all,” said senior Robby Bell, 18, of Union. “It's not something that's going to happen here.”

        “We're a little, safe community,” said senior Kyle Hon, 17, of Union, a lineman on the Ryle Raider football team.

        “Nothing like (the Columbine High School shootings in Colorado) is going to happen here.”

        Ryle has taken steps to try to prevent violence.

        Through a program initiated by Boone County Sheriff Mike Helmig, an armed deputy makes regular rounds at Ryle and three high schools and junior high schools in Boone County.

        But students can do as much as any police officer, teacher or parent in preventing violence, said Ralph Kelly, commissioner of the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice.

        “The only real way to stem the violence is really by people like yourself taking a more active part in what goes on in your life,” Mr. Kelly said. “Because you folks know better than adults as to who are the individuals who are violence producers or violence-prone.

        “You hear more than we hear,” Mr. Kelly said. “No matter how much we try ... the students generally know what is going on better than the adults.”

        Mr. Kelly said he wasn't imploring the students to become “snitches.”

        “But you helping us can prevent something terrible from happening.”

        Other participants in the meeting said there are warning signs that can help students detect when someone may be getting ready to commit a violent act.

        Larry Carrico, executive director of the Kentucky Agency for Substance Abuse Prevention, said students “disconnected” from others, particularly adults, may be giving those signs.

        Often students feeling pain from an event in their lives, such as the loss of a parent or friend, can resort to violence, Mr. Carrico said.

        “If you ever have an opportunity where you are experiencing some real pain, make a connection with an adult,” he said. “Talk to a counselor, a principal, a relative, but make a connection with a significant adult.”

        Other signs that a student might be pondering a violent outbreak, according to psychologist Dr. Michael Downer, include aggressive behavior; boasting about having or obtaining weapons; or violent acts against animals.

        “These are some of the warning signs that you want to start paying attention to,” Dr. Downer said.

        In a question-and-answer session with students, some of the speakers talked about what influences young people or leads them to violence.

        Mr. Bell disputed a notion put forth by Mr. Lucas that “pop culture” — movies, television, video games and other media influences — plays a role in violence by and against students.

        “No way that has a role,” Mr. Bell said. “It all goes back on to parents and how they raise their kids.”


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