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Preparedness is a key lesson
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Preparedness is a common goal of many teachers. Whether they are teaching kindergarteners the basics of shapes, colors, and the alphabet or teaching high schoolers trigonometry, they prepare our children to advance to the next level of learning. Preparation is important because it puts our students in a position to succeed. Too often though, our schools are not prepared for the thing that can end all of our efforts: school-age violence.

School violence

The question must no longer be the old refrain: Will school violence affect us?  Saturday, April 14, 2007 was a temperate morning for me in Bismarck, N.D.  I was there at an EMS conference teaching on EMS response to school shootings. As sometimes occurs with conferences I attend, the media was contacted about my appearance and a producer from the local network news affiliate called me to ask why he should send a crew. His comments to me that morning were “school shootings weren’t really that common” and “we would never have another Columbine.” He was right.
Whereas Columbine High School had 12 students and one teacher killed by two youths, Virginia Tech lost 33 of its campus students and faculty when Cho Seung-Hui began his rampage less than 48 hours later.  How could this happen in the post 9/11 world where preparedness is the keyword of the day? The difference is being ready on paper and being ready in reality.
In one survey of school resource officers, over half the membership noted school response plans were inadequate and on a basis of nearly two to one they said their school-crisis plans had not been adequately tested. The survey tells us that even post 9/11 schools do not understand the real-world nature of the threat that exists to them from within their walls as well as outside them.
Even now, after Virginia Tech and the week that classes are resuming, we have a person slash the throat of another student victim at the University of Colorado. We have students shooting each other in Ohio and a football player was murdered two weeks ago.
Violence is here and it is a concern.  Beyond just the violence, student against student, though, is a larger issue ... the issue of dealing with it. In the survey noted above, three of every five school resource officers believe “school administrators who are faced with the possibility their school will be labeled as ‘persistently dangerous’ will result in underreporting of school crime.” Nearly nine out of 10 further report the number of crimes that occur on school campuses nationwide are underreported to police.
Perhaps this underreporting is because of fear of public backlash. Maybe it is from teachers and administrators who believe they can better determine justice for youngsters than local courts. Whatever the reason, they are hiding the fact violence lurks within their schools.
When reporters and television producers tell me Columbine or Virginia Tech are tragic incidents, but not frequent ones, I remind them that since Columbine, we have had more than 100 school-related shootings. They are generally surprised by this number and the lack of attention our media has given these other relatively “minor” events.
While our state legislatures rush to pass bills that make it a crime to come within 100 feet of a school building with a firearm or local school boards say we will have a dress code school administrations ultimately do not enforce, we lull ourselves into a false sense of security our children and teachers are safe.
While many applaud these efforts, school violence continues. If I may, let me tell you what this issue is really about. It has much less to do with legislators passing laws and cops and attorneys prosecuting and punishing crime. This issue is fundamentally about preparedness, not response.
All the laws in the world Colorado, Ohio or Virginia passes now will do nothing to bring back the loved ones who are lost. No matter how many prosecutions that occur, special committee meetings that are held, or blue ribbon panels that are formed, those who have been ripped from the fabric of our family are gone.
We can choose to respond to these events with helplessness like our students working out a math problem, or we can choose to take these issues head on and prepare for the next one.
We can overcome school violence, but it will require partnerships between school administration, school and local police, along with health components from fire/rescue agencies, local hospitals, and social workers.
The time is now for us to take on these challenges and not let another minute go by with the problem not addressed.
As a former faculty member teaching EMS classes at the university level, I do understand there are only so many minutes in the day. There is only so much time available for conferences with parents, students and administrators. I can relate to teachers’ needs and I sympathize.
Most often the people I see maintaining discipline in schools and maintaining the security are not the paid security staff and resource officers, but front-line teachers who can often make the difference with proactive action.
All schools, elementary or secondary, should consider:
n An all-threats disaster plan. Plan for the unthinkable — this is an opportunity to get everyone to say what might happen, not what probably would happen.
n Develop a generic response for all incidents that is modular in nature. Whether I respond to a bus crash or school shooting, I have five steps I need to take to set things in motion in the right direction.
n Take ownership. Dedication to the plan and its goals is the single best way to ensure that its components will be followed.  As the cliché goes, the team is only as strong as its weakest link.
n Planning and testing are keys to good preparation and successful response. As an example from my career, would it make sense to simply say to a prospective firefighter you’re hired and put him into a house fire for the first time without training, equipment, and a few tests between the job offer and the live fire event? Of course not. But when it comes to our teachers and students’ safety, it appears we as a society take an Alfred E. Neuman approach of “What, me worry?” and hope  disaster strikes somewhere else.
As our teachers put together their next set of lesson plans and break out the new chalk, consider for a moment how the local school or university system will respond to the sounds of screaming children down the hall and the repetitious fire of an automatic weapon.
The school bell is ringing. Will it be for children to come to school and get prepared to take on high school, college or lifelong learning, or will it be the bell signaling our remembrance of more fallen victims?  
Let us hope we embrace the new school year and use it to prepare ourselves to respond to violence before it begins. Let our memorial to Virginia Tech be the last time we go to a school to pay homage to those who die at the hands of other students. Let us be prepared to respond adequately, suitably and competently.

 Suprun is a 15-year veteran paramedic / firefighter and national fire / EMS author and lecturer. He is director of education for Consurgo, LLC and presents on response to school shootings around the country for schools and EMS providers.
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