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For the week of Sept. 15, 1999 through Sept. 22, 1999

The post-Columbine balancing dilemma


Jim Lewis, the Blaine County school superintendent, has had to deal with two gun incidents in his career as a school administrator. Five years ago, when he was an assistant principal in an Alaskan school district on the Kenai Peninsula, about 140 miles south of Anchorage, a .22-caliber handgun turned up in a locker in a student backpack. Then, about four years ago, after Lewis assumed the assistant superintendent post here, a student brought a pellet handgun to Hailey Elementary School. In both instances, a potentially volatile situation was swiftly, and quietly, defused when students informed teachers of the situation. The teachers, in turn, went to Lewis, who confiscated the weapons and then confronted the students. No one was hurt in either incident.

Normally, such occurrences receive little or no media attention. But these are not normal times. The nation still is reeling from the Columbine High School tragedy and a spate of other shootings around the country. With a new school term upon us, how are school officials balancing security with their No. 1 challenge—providing a comfortable academic setting designed to produce quality students?

Lewis, 52, who became Blaine County’s superintendent on July 1, said in a recent conversation that his biggest concern is "if you treat kids like criminals you may develop criminals." So you won’t see metal detectors, menacing fences and guard gates on his watch.

Terrell Donicht, veteran superintendent of Twin Falls School District 411, agrees with this philosophy. Still, he, too, made clear that post-Columbine school policies present a challenge. When does too much security begin to inhibit the education process? Donicht noted in a recent telephone conversation that his 7,000-student district has "lockdown" drills aimed at simulating hostage or shooting incidents. During these drills students take cover with teacher supervision. But, like Lewis, he doesn’t want to promote a fortress mentality. Students, he said, should "offer suggestions on what we can do to make campuses more secure."

If there are no lockdown drills here, there is nevertheless a reminder of the age in which we live. A sign on the Wood River High School campus declares in bold letters, "DRUG FREE GUN FREE SCHOOL ZONE." Even so, Lewis’ philosophy is in place: more subtle, and sensible, security measures that don’t complicate the learning process.

If a lesson was learned from Columbine, most school administrators would almost certainly say it’s that school safety begins with the students. In both of the gun instances involving Lewis, youngsters notified their teachers and both situations were swiftly defused. For his part, Lewis wants the 2,900 students in his district, and their parents, to know that this is not a "snitch" issue, but rather a common sense precaution. Indeed, he believes it’s critical for students to disclose behavior perceived to be aberrant.

Another factor in this year’s "comfort level" at Wood River High is a new home room forum in which students will have an opportunity to discuss issues affecting school relationships, including their friends, their work and their teachers. Scheduled to be added to this dialogue next year are character education classes addressing what Lewis calls "vanilla values" such as student cheating, lying, stealing and how to treat people.

Arguably, these are not sea changes in education, but rather low-key approaches aimed at impressing on students the importance of awareness of their environment. They can be put in place while maintaining collegiality between students and teachers. On a broader scale, Lewis suggested, this is what the Wood River Valley is about. "One of the reasons that people moved to Blaine County is that they didn’t like it where they lived," Lewis observed. "Here, there’s a closeness of community."

Still, the tragedy of Columbine, and its lessons, persist. Lewis, who is committed to keeping in close touch with the district’s 160 classrooms, knows this better than anyone else. "We take nothing for granted," he said.

 

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Copyright 1999 Express Publishing Inc. All Rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of Express Publishing Inc. is prohibited.