Guest Opinions

Involve the community

Grappling with improving school safety highlights two important features of our local governments.

First is our school districts’ ability to use varied approaches to achieve their goals. Second is the opportunity community members have to be heard.

Both of these features are central to our community’s ongoing efforts to make our schools safer.

The U.S. Supreme Court has lauded state and local governments’ opportunity to serve as laboratories to try novel social experiments.

As the court stated in San Antonio Independent School District v. Rodriguez, this is particularly appropriate in public education: “No area of social concern stands to profit more from a multiplicity of viewpoints and from a diversity of approaches than does public education.”

Why? Because no two schools are exactly alike. Approaches to one school’s problems may not be what’s best for another school.

Moreover, a school can examine ideas that have been tested by other schools and consider whether those ideas, or newly inspired ideas, might be helpful. This seems particularly true when addressing school safety.

A U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education study of 37 school attacks occurring between 1974 and 2000 identified two insightful statistics:

-- In 81 percent of the attacks at least one person had information that the attacker was planning an attack.

-- Nearly three-quarters of attackers “felt persecuted, bullied, threatened, attacked or injured by others prior to the incident.”

School districts have adopted a multiplicity of approaches to address these issues, for example:

-- A school district in suburban Chicago encourages students to report school safety issues through an anonymous “tip line” monitored by police liaison officers.

-- School districts have used conflict resolution training to provide students with skills to help manage conflicts before they escalate.

-- A Kentucky school adopted the “Be Safe and Sound” program, which includes regular forums where community members discuss concerns regarding school safety.

Thanks to the laboratory of ideas concept, we have a vast smorgasbord of ideas to consider and critique, rather than a this-is-what’s-for-dinner mandate.

Which leads to the second point, our local governments are close — meaning the people running our schools are accessible and easy to contact. They live in our communities. Principals can be easily reached by e-mail or phone.

School boards hold regular public meetings where you can ask questions and voice concerns. Because of this accessibility, it is relatively easy for us to participate and make our voices heard on school-related issues.

Both of these features should play significant roles in our community’s effort to improve school safety. There are changes that could be made. There are new ideas that may merit testing.

There is the opportunity for our school districts to share ideas with each other; what works, what doesn’t, and why. The which-changes-and-why decisions should not be made without an opportunity for input from students, teachers, administrators, parents, and residents — our community — the people affected by these decisions.

But this is a two way street. When these opportunities are provided, we — members of the community — need to take advantage of them.

Our local governments should implement ideas that best meet local needs. Looking at what has worked well in other schools is a good place to start.

Our local governments provide us an opportunity to be heard and informed regarding important decisions. When that opportunity is provided and taken advantage of, concerns are voiced, understood and addressed, and ideas are carefully vetted and implemented.

Most importantly, the whole community takes responsibility for — and more likely ensures — school safety.

* Chad Mitchell and his family recently moved back to the Tri-Cities from Chicago. He now practices law with Seattle’s Summit Law Group and is a member of Richland School District’s Safety Committee.