Creating safer schools

Threats response: Carroll County uses mental health staff, teachers and police to head off violence.

April 20, 2001

AS FEARS of serious school violence spread, school systems and communities are struggling to find the right balance between a safe environment and an oppressive one.

Statistics show an overall decline in violent incidents in recent years. But horrific images of lethal havoc in a few schools, like Columbine two years ago today and Santana in March, are persuading most education systems that it's better to be safe than sorry.

Firmly dealing with students who threaten others is an effective way to head off school violence. Carroll County is a regional and national leader in this effort.

Carroll's 3-year-old method for prompt intervention, suspension and counseling is a zero-tolerance model that is attracting attention from across the country. It combines the resources of the schools, law enforcement and mental health counseling. Most important, it backs up firm policy with action.

Students who make threats of serious violence are automatically suspended and are assessed by an experienced counselor-therapist in the county's Youth Services Bureau. Police are notified of every incident -- without exception -- even if they don't intervene.

Counseling of student and family is often recommended and may soon be required for readmission, as the Carroll school board responds to community complaints about lack of follow-through.

The tough policy admittedly trips up students who may consider their threats as jokes or a way to release anger without physical retaliation. But Carroll's school staff and most parents believe that firmness is a deterrent. "If we err, we're going to err on the side of taking it too seriously," says pupil services director Cynthia Little.

Hypersensitivity to the possibilities of violence led Carroll school officials to call police about a suspected "hit list" that turned out to be just a birthday party invitation list. Teachers and staff still have to exercise good judgment in enforcing the policy.

There are legitimate concerns that harassment of students by others can lead to threats of revenge. Schools need to deal fairly with those situations, as well, in creating a safe climate where all children can learn and grow.

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