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Wauwatosa School Board hears a timely message on security

Jan. 29, 2013

With a knife-in-school incident fresh in the minds of parents, a school safety presentation given Monday to the School Board took on extra timeliness.

A young student at Washington Elementary School reportedly brought a knife to school on more than one day last week. The knife was taken from the student Thursday, Jan. 24, but it wasn't until Friday that Principal Anthony Bonds sent an email to parents.

By then, some already had heard about it from their children.

Trish Lipscomb said she heard about the incident from her 8-year-old son, who said the boy with the knife had said, "I'm going to kill you," to another student. She called the principal, and didn't get a return call until five hours later, and "he wasn't reassuring," she said.

"I see communication as the huge No. 1 factor on all levels for this type of thing," she said.

Superintendent Phil Ertl said all protocols for such an incident were followed, and that he was notified quickly.

But Lisa Maglio wasn't satisfied.

"There was just not enough information provided to make parents feel at ease," she said.

Jim Larson, a psychologist and professor emeritus from University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, and a former, longtime school psychologist for the Milwaukee Public Schools, addressed the board about incidents like this one and others. The board met as a Committee of the Whole for the presentation.

Larson urged the district to focus on three areas in addressing school security issues:

Threat assessment.

"Each school building should have a threat assessment process in place that includes procedures for receiving student concerns," he summarized in his handouts. "This should go beyond just the principal's judgment and include a small team of student services members."

Mental health support.

"Each school should see itself as a major mental health service delivery facility as a complimentary role to its primary function as an academic institution. Teachers should be (trained) in signs and symptoms of the most common childhood and adolescent concerns and become knowledgeable in the process of effective instruction and confidential referral in the building." Students services staff should be trained in mental health services delivery, he said. And, "highest risk students should have a school - home - eommunity wraparound team that provides support and monitors progress."

Crisis management.

"Each school should have training in the National Association of School Psychologists PREPaRE crisis management and response model." PREPaRE is an acronym for "prevent, reaffirm, evaluate, provide and respond, examine," a program developed by the association.

Larson walked the board through an eight-page School Violence Needs Assessment Instrument, a list of questions about school environments and access controls; "climate," or comfort-level on social and security issues; discipline and how it is administered; crisis preparedness and response; and awareness of and programming for at-risk students.

He emphasized the importance of creating a "decision tree" that is adhered to, and developing a "consistency of process," so that, for example, emails are sent out under certain circumstances, but not under others.

Larson warned against "dead space" in buildings - places that aren't monitored or are difficult to monitor. And, he said, security starts in the classroom.

"When you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, it makes it almost impossible to do what you're not supposed to be doing," he said.

Suspensions from school should be minimized, he said, as that allows those who misbehave to go unsupervised.

Threats can come from outside the school or inside it, he said.

"The eyes and ears that the administration has on the student body are other students," he said. A process for student reporting needs to be developed, one that emphasizes confidentially and does not making students confront those they report on.

The School Board will continue to meeting as a Committee of the Whole to discuss security issues before each regular School Board meeting.

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