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School safety panel says violence prevention starts with student relationships

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Mark Holtzman, Chief of Police, speaks during a roundtable discussion involving various topics on school safety Friday, June 22, 2018.


By Seth Thomas Gulledge
The Daily Reflector

Saturday, June 23, 2018

Relationships, communication and connections are far more important than more guns or security in protecting school children, according to a panel of teachers, administrators, and law enforcement. 

On Friday morning, the panel met for a discussion about improving school safety in the wake of several recent national tragedies, such as the ones in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe, Texas. 

The discussion was hosted by 103.7 Talk of the Town. The panel included Greenville Chief of Police Mark Holtzman, Parents for Pitt County Schools President Melissa Adamson, Pitt County Schools Superintendent Ethan Lenker, South Central High School Principal Janarde Cannon, D.H. Conley High School resource officer Les Jackson and South Central High School teacher Lauren Piner. 

Piner said having forums like the one on Friday was an unfortunate reality of the world today, as was spending more time, money and energy on securing schools across the country.

“Hardening of the schools — nobody wants to do that, but in today’s world it’s something you have to do,” she said. “A lot of our schools were built in the 1950s. They were open campuses, hubs of the community. You still want them to be hubs of our community but we need them to be safe for our students.”

Lenker said fortifying schools against threats goes beyond locking doors and denying access. He said many of the changes that need to take place are inside of the school — making sure each student is cared for.

Piner agreed with Lenker, saying the government needs to prioritize spending for services for students so that the burden can come off of teachers, who ultimately do not have the capacity to adequately provide for each individual.

“It comes down to making sure our students have the resources that they need: social workers, school psychologists, nurses,” she said. “So many times teachers have to play all of those roles and teach and make sure that our students have great home lives.” 

Cannon said the reason that these services are important is because they often remedy — or at least identify — early factors that can lead students to become a threat to themselves or others. 

“In my school we have an attendance specialist that, if a student isn’t coming to school, they go and check on them,” he said. “That might not be a immediate school safety issue, but often that’s because something is going on at home. That’s the approach to school safety we have to take.

“There’s certain avenues of concern that we have to address, and if we don’t address them they can lead to safety issues,” Cannon said.

The effort to connect with students extends to law enforcement. As a resource officer, Jackson said his job primarily is about being a preventative asset, not about enforcement and protecting students in crisis situations.

“First and foremost as a school resource officer, I feel my number one job is relationship building, because if I don’t have a relationship with the students and the parents of students, I am ineffective at my job,” he said. “That way I can get ahead of problems.

“There’s always going to be issues at a school,” he said. “We can’t be 100 percent safe but what we can do is ensure our kids that they have someone that they can trust. The last thing a resource officer is there (to do) is to charge a kid. That’s not why we’re there.”

Holtzman agreed with the others, saying that the best protection is prevention and remediation long before any situation rises. Beyond that, he said, schools should continue to secure themselves through secondary exits, secured entryways and training to make sure it is as difficult as possible to inflict harm on students. 

“The last thing you want to do is respond to a school that’s in crisis,” he said. “When it gets to the point of a crisis, we’re almost too late at that point. We’re just trying to reduce the damage that’s done. So I’d like to go back and address it as early as we can, and it starts with building relationships.” 

All participants in forum said arming teachers would not be their ideal method of increasing school safety.

Contact Seth Gulledge at 329-9579 and Sgulledge@reflector.com