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School safety summit focuses on prevention, awareness

Chip Ellis
Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, who travels the country to speak about school shootings, attended the West Virginia Safe Schools Summit at the state Culture Center on Wednesday. Grossman believes violent video games are motivating young people to act out and he promotes more armed guards in schools.
Chip Ellis Educators, parents and community leaders attended a safe schools summit dedicated to protecting West Virginia students at the Culture Center on Wednesday.

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "I watched the Columbine massacre. The shooters are kind of like me."

"The adrenaline would make me feel alive. I'd love to make them feel pain like I have."

"I have supplies to get and planning to do."

Those are some of the messages a Mingo County student sent to a classmate on Facebook in September of 2011.

The girl who received the messages immediately called Scott Jefferson, the school's prevention resource officer.

Police conducted an investigation and took the teen into custody before school started the next day.

Getting more prevention resource officers (PROs) inside of schools and building a healthy connection between students and staff were two of the many goals discussed at the West Virginia Safe Schools Summit in Charleston on Wednesday.

"Serious school violence doesn't come out of nowhere. There are warning signs," said Jefferson, now a Wood County deputy, who sat on a panel of experts at the event at the state Culture Center. "We need to secure our schools immediately. They're too open. We always seem to wait until a major incident happens before we say we have a problem, but we've had the problem."

About 400 people attended the summit, where a range of education leaders, law enforcement, behavioral health professionals and other experts met to focus on how to create the safest school environment and protect West Virginia students from tragedies like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary.

The summit's keynote speaker, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman, an author retired from the U.S. Army, travels the country to talk about the psychology behind school shootings. He focused on violent media such as video games and the effect they have on children, saying, "We are raising a generation of killers."

Grossman preached the importance of having armed officers in schools, likening an unarmed security guard to a firefighter without a hose.

He also urged the audience to stop referring to recent tragedies as "shootings" or the perpetrators as "shooters."

"Shootings are what happen during deer season when you get lucky. These are massacres," he said.

Every school needs three things to ensure that students are safe from an intruder situation, according to Grossman: A single point of entry, classrooms that are able to be secured quickly with doors closed 24-7 and smash-deterrent glass on windows.

"How many bad guys have to shoot out the windows and walk in and murder our kids before we learn we need to pay a few extra bucks for a window? Our problem isn't money, our problem is denial," he said.

Mark Manchin, executive director of the West Virginia School Building Authority, said stronger windows are already in the works for new schools in the state. Manchin hopes that all new schools, and those that receive major renovations, will now have a protective window film that prevents them from being busted in addition to keyless entries on doors.

More than 90 percent of the state's 683 schools have keyless door locking devices, following $30 million appropriated by the Legislature for school safety in 2010, according to Manchin. Only about 30 percent of schools have secured entrances, though.

"Anything that disrupts the shooter saves lives. It's all about keeping the bad guy out. It's not rocket science. If we can keep someone out for three to five minutes until our first responders can be on site, we can save lives," Manchin said.

When asked if he agreed with some of Grossman's philosophies, U.S. Attorney Booth Goodwin, who organized the event, said it doesn't matter what he thinks.

"The point is not whether I agree. The point is whether the folks on the front lines reach a consensus. There are a lot of facets to this issue, and we're only here for one day. This is to start a discussion," he said.

The discussions held on Wednesday will go toward a report on the state's school safety measures that will soon be posted online at www.wvsafeschools.org, according to Goodwin.

In addition to a panel of law enforcement and safety experts, other panels focused on preventing school violence through the examination of psychological services in schools and training teachers to monitor warning signs in students.

"It's not a matter of throwing money at the issue, it's about thinking about things differently. When we think safe schools, we think of strong doors with good windows and locks, but in this day in age, we know that it goes far beyond that," Goodwin said.

State Superintendent of Schools Jim Phares said school safety depends on the collaboration of everyone involved in a school community.

"We know gone are the days that our greatest school safety concern was breaking up fights. But the Board of Education cannot act alone in making any decision related to school safety. Dialogue is paramount," he said. "The dynamic of this recent shooting should make us all aware that it's not just showing up and getting lesson plans done. Teachers have a deeper mission."

The West Virginia Department of Education has already reached out to experts across the state to begin an audit of each school systems' safety measures, Phares said.

Ron Duerring, superintendent for Kanawha County Schools, called the summit "very emotionally charged," and said it has already started to generate important conversations.

"There were some hot topics. Everyone takes a side on whether police officers should be armed in schools. But, I think that's what it's meant to do, to challenge your thinking," he said. "I think it was meant to be set up that way, so that people can think about the safety of our kids and how serious it really is."

Reach Mackenzie Mays at mackenzie.mays@wvgazette.com or 304-348-4814.


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