Keeping Kids Safe
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: This week should be a time of celebration for all four of our guests, but the events in Littleton, CO have overshadowed that, because they are teachers. All four have been selected by their states as their state teacher of the year out of thousands of candidates.
Janice James is from Louisville, KY. And she teaches primary education. And she is the Kentucky Teacher of the Year.
Mary Lynn Peacher is the Oklahoma State Teacher of the Year; she teaches fourth grade in Jencks, OK, just outside of Tulsa.
Peter White is the New York State Teacher of the Year; he teaches social studies in a high school on Long Island.
And Andy Baumgartner is the National Teacher of the Year; he teaches kindergarten in Augusta, GA. Congratulations.
Thanks to all of you for being with us. Mr. Baumgartner, I’d like to start with you. What happens in your school district if you as a teacher spot a child that you think has problems?
ANDY BAUMGARTNER, National Teacher of the Year: Each school in our system is required to have an emergency plan in place which must be cleared at the system level and must be in accordance with their emergency plan, but I think what we have to focus on here is that no matter how much policy there is, a situation like Littleton is not something that can ever be prepared for, no matter how much we may try to do that. This is a reflection of the society that has some very serious problems.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Mr. White, you teach in a high school that is a very similar type of high school to Columbine High School. What does your district do with a potential situation like what we saw develop there?
PETER WHITE, New York Teacher of the Year: Well, in November of ’98, perhaps in response to many of the violent incidents that occurred last year, our school began something called a “Keep School Safe” committee or program, and that has many prongs to it, or parts to it. We have an anger control committee that works with kids in the second and third grade. We have peer mediation. If I spot a kid that has a problem, that I think has a problem, there are so many places to start, beginning with the regular guidance counselor, and they all know the kids; their assistant principals know all of their kids, the social workers — we just have a climate at North Port High School in the North Port district where intervention is strongly believed in and occurs.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What do you do in Louisville if that sort of thing happens?
JANICE JAMES, Kentucky Teacher of the Year: Well, in Louisville, we also have guidance counselors who help. We have family resource centers who are supportive for the whole family, so it’s not just the child, but we have help for the family. We also have the assistance of a social worker. We also try to be proactive and to help children be successful early on in the elementary grades so that they have confidence in themselves, that they care about the students in the school, so that they feel like they belong.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Miss Peacher, what do you do in Jencks, Oklahoma, if you see children coming into your classroom in unusual clothing, talking as these kids did about guns, about Hitler? What guidelines do you have set before you on how to identify trouble before it becomes a problem?
MARY LYNN PEACHER, Oklahoma Teacher of the Year: We have a lot of support system through the counselors, but in my particular elementary school, we even have on-staff personnel from the local children’s medical center to help those children with severe emotional needs, because it’s the prevention I think that you hear us all talking about that makes the difference. We’re trained at the beginning. We have a nurse, a counselor, but we also use the custodians, the bus drivers. Anyone who comes in contact with the children are trained to look for warning signs and we are a network within each other, so we are the inter-networking warning system, but the State of Oklahoma now has a statewide free, 24-hour number which is anonymous – any child, any parent any citizen can call if they see any problem with the school and the appropriate authorities are contacted then immediately.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: I see you nodding your head. Do you have something similar in Kentucky?
JANICE JAMES: Well, in Kentucky we also have committees that are working to have safe schools and we are able to report in any instances that we think need more attention.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: So this just doesn’t just come out of nowhere in the context of your school districts.
PETER WHITE: I think it would be a big mistake to in any way draw the inference that, you know, because we have this, we now have to change and revamp all of the way we treat students. Intervention is important; workshops on how to identify problems with kids, knowing the teacher or the peer, and knowing where to go is important, and schools have been addressing that. I believe that the children are okay, that they always have been, and even kids that wear trench coats are okay. My son had his hair dyed blue a few years ago and he is a wonderful, loving kid and he is in college and he is doing fine. I think the blue went out. Actually, soon he is going to look like me; he knows that, so I said “Do what you want with your hair now.” But the notion that kids who may dress a little differently, that is a fashion statement in — where I work, that is not necessarily a sign of any kind of neo-Nazi movement or you know — the problem here is anger and guns, the problem isn’t really what they wore, so to all the students listening who might wear trench coats, you’re fine, you understand what I am saying?
MARY LYNN PEACHER: Well, in my school, they’re not allowed to wear T-shirts with any logo that promotes violence or alcohol or drug abuse or anything like that. And we do have codes about, you know, coloring hair and that kind of thing. But you negotiate it with the children in a way, but then you’re the adult. You’re the person in charge, and you set the guideline because you have to set that standard for them, so they can learn to make the right choices and have that modeled for them.
PETER WHITE: We just have a slightly different approach in New York because 30 years ago the courts said in very famous cases like Tinker v. Des Moines, Iowa, that the Constitution of the United States does not stop at the schoolhouse door. And cases that followed that allow a lot of student due process. We’re happy in our school that we have a student ombudsman. If the student is right in any way is trampled or reduce, the student has someplace to go. We do have rules against vulgarity and things like that.
MARY LYNN PEACHER: Right.
PETER WHITE: You can’t wear a T-shirt that says -
MARY LYNN PEACHER: Well, it’s not a total – I didn’t mean to imply that it wasn’t -
PETER WHITE: Right.
MARY LYNN PEACHER: — the democratic rights weren’t – but it’s not like they can’t vote. You know, they can, in a way. That’s why I’m saying there’s negotiation.
PETER WHITE: But dress is part of speech, and as long as that dress is not obscene -
MARY LYNN PEACHER: Yes, that’s right.
PETER WHITE: — or vulgar or, I guess -
MARY LYNN PEACHER: A positive expression of self — a creative expression of self.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: But how do you draw the line between a student’s right to free expression to dye his hair blue, to pierce various parts of his body, and the student that potentially could cause an incident?
PETER WHITE: Incidents can happen -
ANDY BAUMGARTNER: I think that and many other characteristics are going to have to be in the discussion that comes out of this. We are going to have to discuss every aspect of what could have been done, what should have been done, what might be done in the future, but as Peter is trying to say, we have to look at all sides and all aspects of this tragedy. There is no other way to look at it. Certainly nothing good can come from it, but hopefully a dialogue can come from it that will make all of us, teachers, students, parents, citizens, aware that we have a societal problem that impacts on our schools and that we as teachers are not solely responsible for dealing with this problems or with the success of our schools in meeting the needs of these students. We need active participation from each and every member of society.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: One of the people killed in Colorado this week was a teacher, and there have been other incidents where teachers have been killed. Do any of you ever worry that you might be going into a similar position where you could be harmed?
MARY LYNN PEACHER: None of us live in fear of it. You can’t. And having more locks and more gadgets to detect guns and that kind of thing is not going to solve the problem. We have to start building the children before this becomes a problem. It’s too late to tell a parent when their 16 your child is in trouble and I wish you would do something about it. Well, it is never too late, but that is awfully late to start then and the prevention has to start before that. Safety can’t be legislated; it has to be taken care of as an entire community and we realize that. We can’t live in fear of it but we can certainly be aware of safety issues that keep us all a lot safer.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: Some people are saying because of these incidents, that schools need to have policemen in the hallways, that the school needs to have one main door as opposed to 18 doors for kids to come through, there should be metal detectors, more security, secret cameras, the whole nine yards. What do you all say?
PETER WHITE: I think it’s nonsense. I think that – first of all these two young men could have done this at a mall, a shopping mall. They could have gunned down the school bus five miles away from the building if they really wanted to hurt people, kill people, including take their own lives. I don’t think — schools aren’t jails.
ANDY BAUMGARTNER: I certainly think we have to keep the discussion open to any areas that are going to affect us and certainly the safety of our children is in all of our hearts and especially the parents in the school, so therefore the discussion has to remain open for anyone has to put in their ideas. I think those ideas have to be evaluated very carefully and I think they have to be looked at and chosen between as to what is best for our children, but again, I hope that the discussion will center more on what we need to do with children as they enter our schools, as they continue through our schools, to help them feel that they are quality members of our society that have something positive to contribute, that each one enters with dignity and leaves with dignity.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: What do you as teachers think you need to do in a concrete form to prevent these things from continuing to take place in our society?
PETER WHITE: I think all of us are advocates of teachers and young people, and we have our critics — but I think the fundamental job of educating kids really does lie with parents. And, you know, times have changed. I don’t know how many percentage of both parents are working. A lot of kids go home to empty homes and so they need us more than maybe ever before. These experts say that it is the permissiveness in schools and the problem with what is on TV and the movies and the violence and they want to return to the good old days when we had a stronger moral center or something, you know. I don’t know that the good old days were ever that good. When I went to high school, in those days, I don’t know if Janice could have gotten a cup of coffee, you know, at a coffee counter in half the states in our country. If that is the good old days that we are going back to, I will take the present any day and deal with the problems that we have and trust the teachers, and the kids are okay.
BETTY ANN BOWSER: We’re going to have to leave it there. Thank you very much.