Parents worry of violence in schools

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 4, 2000

ERIK SANZENBACH / L’Observateur / March 4, 2000

LAPLACE – “Take the sentence ‘It can’t happen here,’ wad it up and throw it away,” Lt. Mike Hoover of the St. John Sheriff’s Office warned an audience ofworried parents at a seminar on school safety. “Be alert, and communicatewith the kids.”The meeting, sponsored by the St. Charles Catholic Parent-TeachersOrganization, had a special significance Wednesday night. It was the dayafter a 6-year-old boy killed a 6-year-old girl at a school in Michigan. The pallof that tragedy hung heavy over the audience as members listened to a panel made up of police, educators, prosecutors, social workers and federal law enforcement members.

The panel told the handful of parents who attended the meeting what the experts are trying to do to curb school violence on the national, state and local level.

Sandra Ezell from the state’s Attorney General’s office told parents that Attorney General Richard Ieyoub has a personal concern for Louisiana students.

The Attorney General’s office is working with school systems statewide in formulating a crises intervention plan that can be implemented immediately in case a scenario like the school shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado or Pearl High School in Pearl, Miss., ever occur in here.Ezell said the first 10 minutes of such a scenario are the most important, and all schools should have intervention team members that know what to do before the police arrive.

“No one has all the answers,” Ezell told the audience, “but we can make you ready.”Special Agent Austin Banks of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms offered federal help to local schools. The ATF has a program called the YouthCrime Interdiction Program, in which the ATF will trace every gun confiscated in school. This way they can find out how kids are getting their hands onfirearms.

The ATF is also active in going into schools and teaching students techniques on conflict-resolution, tolerance of cultural diversity and building self- esteem.

“Are we listening to our kids? Are we talking to them?” Banks asked the parents. “Are we really thinking about guns? Are your guns locked up?”When looking for the warning signs, Banks told parents to look for motive, means and opportunity. He used Columbine as an example.”Those boys had motive; they were angry,” Banks said. “They had the means.They were able to get their hands on a lot of gunpowder and guns, and they had the opportunity at their school.”On the medical and psychological side social worker James Rovaris of the LSU School of Medicine gave some startling facts about children’s exposure to violence. He is part of a study called Violence Intervention Program thatcounsels and studies children who have been victims or witnesses to violence.

“On the physical level, ” Rovaris said, “the trauma of witnessing violence tends to make a child’s brain stop growing.”He said children who are victims of violence tend to withdraw and become moody, even angry. They start to act out the trauma they have witnessedand develop a general lack of trust and optimism in the world around them.

However, with early intervention and counseling, said Rovaris, there is hope and there can be a healing.

St. John Parish Assistant District Attorney John Diasselliss, who runs thejuvenile section of the department, doesn’t think jail is an answer to the problem.

“I can lock up the kids,” Diasselliss said, “but they come out even worse.”Diasselliss said the answer is more spiritual than judicial.

“These kids are angry and growing up in an aura of violence,” Diasselliss told the parents. “These kids don’t have a relationship with God, and until we canadmit that we can’t solve things alone, nothing will get done.”Hoover said the St. John Sheriff’s Office is working hard to keep school kidson the right track. With K-9 drug-sniffing dogs in the schools, resourceofficers, D.A.R.E. programs and violence-intervention programs, Hoover said,”We are doing our best.”But even so, Hoover said, children today are facing a lot more dangers than children of 20 or 30 years ago.

“I’ve talked to kindergarten kids who can tell me where to buy marijuana and how much it will cost,” Hoover said.

Teaching self-esteem, confidence, conflict resolution and other life skills is part of the answer, according to Hoover.

“Don’t take your time with your kids for granted,” Hoover said to the parents. “Be honest with them, always communicate and lead by example.”Elton Oubre, director of Safe and Drug-Free Schools for the St. John ParishSchool System, told audience members they have to stop thinking this parish is inside a protective bubble.

Oubre brought home his point by relating an incident that happened to him when he was an assistant principal. A student pulled a gun in school one dayand fired it five times past Oubre’s head.

“I still have nightmares about it,” he said, “and the boy said he did it because he was angry that day. I always thought I was immune, but I am not.”He said collaboration between public, private and parochial schools is very important. The school board, sheriff’s office and state are trying to come upwith one crisis intervention plan that can be used by everyone.

“We are all in this together,” Oubre said.

The panel offered suggestions on what parents can do to help themselves and their children deal with the violence around them: Hug your children at every opportunity and tell them you love them.

Eliminate violent behavior completely from your home.

Show your children the many things you do to keep them safe.

Eliminate guns from your household.

Help your children deal with their anger and frustration.

Listen and speak with your children about their fears and concerns.

Be consistent with family rules and schedules.

Develop positive rewards for your child.

Monitor the television shows, movies and video games your children play.

Don’t let children under 5 watch the news.

Teach your children self-respect, respect for adults and respect for other children.

Recent statistics show incidents of school violence is on the decline. Despitethat, panel members warned the audience not to let down its guard. Theexperts can do just so much, panel members agreed, but they all returned to the same point: parents have the responsibility to communicate and teach their kids what is correct and incorrect behavior.

“Without the parents,” said Oubre, “we cannot solve this problem, and until we admit we are not immune and that we have to work hand-in-hand, nothing will get done.”Diasseliss was gloomy about what is happening to the children of this country.

“I venture to say it will only get worse until we assume our responsibility as parents to our children,” Diasselliss said.

Rovaris’ advice to parents was simple.

“The number one rule for children is to give them a sense of belonging,” he said.

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