Northwest NEWS

March 8, 1999


Guest Editorial

Safety is key component to excellent schools

by Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe

   For many of us, when we were in school, the most visible symbol of a school's efforts to keep children safe from harm was the crossing guard. The orange vests and plastic flags that students would use while stopping traffic to let other children cross the street exemplified that the major safety concern was not in the school, but on that stretch of road in front of it.

   Today, school safety is much more involved. Things have changed. It's a less-safe world out there. Now we're concerned about protecting our children not just from traffic accidents, but from adult harassers and violent campus incidents, a few even perpetrated by their own young peers. It's a different time and schools have to adapt accordingly.

   This session, the Legislature has the opportunity to do something to keep schools safe. Recently, the state Senate passed a three-bill safer-schools package, which I sponsored, that is part of the Senate Democrats' agenda to promote excellent schools and a more safe and secure future for everyone.

   We need to keep the momentum going, and ensure that the House of Representatives follows suit. Nobody likes to think about school as a place where children's safety is threatened. Indeed, the opposite is true. Our schools are generally the safest place a child can be. Statistically, children are far more likely to be hurt at home than in the classroom.

   But the images of campus shootings in Springfield, Oregon, or Moses Lake here in Washington are not imagined. School shootings may not happen often, but when they do, we need to take notice and make adjustments in policy to better protect students, just in case the unthinkable happens.

   Being adequately prepared for an emergency is critical to safety. The first bill of the safety package, SB-5212, follows the same time-tested idea as a fire drill: Have a plan and know how to use it. The bill requires districts to update their current crisis plans.

   The new plans would expand the definition of "emergency" to include not just physical and natural disasters, but also acts of violence. We know all too well that this is necessary in today's society.

   A good crisis plan can help keep an emergency from becoming a chaotic situation. It can minimize damage and, most important, it can keep our children safe. Because there may come a time when that plan is going to mean the difference between injuries and fatalities, between safety and tragedy. This common-sense bill passed the Senate unanimously.

   There are all sorts of disruptions that can disturb a school day, from an unexpected snowfall to a rowdy classroom. But unwanted guests are the worst.

   The second bill in the safety package clarifies that police have the authority to arrest a person who is disruptive on a school campus and who refuses to leave. The measure is simple, but important. There should be no tolerance for people who come onto school grounds and disturb the activities of the school day. It's certainly disruptive and possibly even dangerous.

   For the third safer schools bill, we looked to campus shooting incidents around the country for lessons. It's unfortunate that it can sometimes require a tragedy to change the collective mind of a community, but we should not ignore the lessons it can teach. And the most important lessons is this: When a child brings a gun to school, it's obviously a sign of a deeper problem.

   The school shooting that occurred in Springfield last year was allegedly perpetrated by a boy who had been suspended one day earlier for bringing a gun to school. What school officials didn't know was that he had more guns and more anger. He stands accused of shooting both of his parents and then returning to school the next day, killing two students and injuring more than 20 others.

   The final bill of the safer-schools package (SB-5214) requires a minimum 24-hour detention for any youth between the ages of 10 and 18 who is arrested for bringing a gun to school. The bill still allows for the usual protections of release on bond or probable cause if a judge so orders. But before the child is released on bond, he or she must be evaluated by a county mental health professional and, if it is warranted, further evaluated for chemical dependency.

   We have to get the child the help he or she needs. That 24-window might be just enough time to ensure that the child who brought a gun to school has a future. It also might be just enough time to save other innocent lives.

   So while the schoolhouse is still the safest place for our children, and violent incidents there are few and far between, the Legislature needs to help schools change with the times. We have to take advantage of the opportunity we have to create even safer schools. Because what's at risk is too precious to lose.

Editor's Note: State Sen. Rosemary McAuliffe represents the people of the 1st Legislative District. She chairs the Senate Education Committee, and she also serves on the Senate Higher Education and Environmental Quality & Water Resources committees.