School safety, reducing violence and providing help for troubled students will do more than reduce the chance of another school shooting like the Columbine and Sandy Hook tragedies, a distraught grandmother reminded the experts Thursday.
“Fifteen weeks ago I lost my 15-year-old granddaughter to suicide,” Sharon Barto said at Windber Research Institute during the community forum School and Community Safety: Lessons Learned from Sandy Hook.
“There are some holes (in the system), I think, that are missing,” Barto continued. “In a month, I probably get about five phone calls from youth calling my house. We can’t overlook these youth who are still calling, still following up. They are still grieving and they don’t know what to do. We need to reach out to our kids in school and we can’t be afraid to talk about it.”
Audience questions and comments such as Barto’s focused on the nuts and bolts of school safety, complementing the expert panel’s presentations on the broader strategies and programs available for schools in this region.
Video by Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention.
About 80 people participated in Thursday’s forum, co-sponsored by Windber’s Center for Health Promotion and Disease Prevention, along with Alternative Research Community Research Program.
Speakers included Dr. Matthew Masiello, center director; Chief Mike Burgan of Richland Township police; Mike Bookser, emergency planning and response coordinator from the Center for Schools and Communities in Camp Hill; Shiryl Barto, Windber director of bullying prevention initiatives; and ACRP’s Jill Surloff, social worker, and Curt Davis, School-wide Positive Behavior & Interventional Support programs facilitator.
Violence is a national problem, Masiello said, pointing to a graph of violence-related deaths in teen boys and young men.
He presented a pyramid of strategies to combat school violence. Current data, quality educators, school-based mental health programs, safety coordinators, security measures and bullying prevention are all important.
“At the top of the list – but necessarily the most important, really – is firearm legislation and education,” Masiello said.
Illustrating the importance of addressing gun issues, Masiello cited a 2011 Penn State study.
“Among the leading causes of death, from ages 15 to 24, homicide ranks second and suicide ranks third, with the number of firearm-related homicides and suicides outnumbering the next nine reasons.”
The study showed a majority of Americans, including a majority of gun owners, agree the government should strive to keep guns out of the hands of criminals, he added.
Davis and Surloff outlined ACRP’s behavioral health work, explaining the in-school programs have proven more effective and less costly.
Bookser gave tips on preparing an emergency plan, stressing that a good plan addresses all types of emergencies and allows for the unexpected. Schools fail because they don’t share emergency plans with those expected to respond, they don’t practice the response and they don’t keep plans up to date, he said.
Richland police learned some valuable emergency response lessons on Sept. 13 when Kevin McGee opened fire outside the police station, Burgan said.
“We got lucky. We got very lucky,” Burgan said, recalling the incident, in which police fatally shot McGee after he started shooting at a police car.
“I am happy he came to the station,” Burgan said, reminding the audience that school and college buildings surround Richland’s municipal offices.
“If he had chosen one of those over us, we could have had a different outcome.”
The incident led to a review of Richland’s building security, he added.
Improving safety will require the entire community, including schools, police, mental health workers and governments, Burgan said.
Thursday’s forum should represent one step in a community approach to school violence, Davis said.
“To me, what this is all about is simply getting us here as a conduit,” Davis said. “Because probably the best ideas are some ideas that some of you people have. Can we keep that going so that those ideas turn into a conversation, and the awareness level goes up and the cooperation goes up?”