Weaver: Schools safer than thought

Published 12:00 am Friday, August 27, 1999

Despite cases of high-profile school violence across the nation, parents shouldn’t be scared to send their children to school.

Friday, August 27, 1999

Despite cases of high-profile school violence across the nation, parents shouldn’t be scared to send their children to school.

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That’s the message Charlie Weaver brought to Albert Lea Thursday.

As commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Public Safety, Weaver told educators and law enforcement personnel school shouldn’t be a scary place.

&uot;The way people think things are is very different from the facts,&uot; said Weaver. &uot;As we talk about solutions, we also need to look at facts.&uot;

Weaver said the facts are children have less than a one in a million chance of suffering a school-related death.

While state and school officials have been educating parents about school-related violence in recent years, Weaver said they’ve also been sending the wrong message.

&uot;I think we’ve scared parents more than we’ve educated them,&uot; he said.

In Minnesota, the level of violence in schools has remained steady, said Weaver, adding there has been a slight increase in rural schools.

But, local schools aren’t reporting that increase, said educators and law enforcement.

&uot;The three years since I’ve been in the school, the violence has decreased,&uot; said Albert Lea Police Officer Bill Villarreal, who serves as a liaison to the Albert Lea Area School District.

He said most potential violence is stopped before it happens. Last year, only three fights were reported.

At Halverson Elementary School, Principal Del Stein said received complaints this year after not submitting an annual violence report two years in a row. The paperwork wasn’t completed because there was no violence to report, he said.

In Alden-Conger and Glenville-Emmons, superintendents said violence is also kept down.

Weaver said communities can take a lot of the credit for limiting violence in schools.

&uot;What works is connections between students and their parents, students and their schools, students and their community,&uot; he said, noting that no specific program can provide those connections.

&uot;How do you make that happen?&uot; he asked.

One answer Weaver supplied is the DARE program. While he said the program has had little affect at stopping drug use, he recognized it as a valuable tool for sparking relationships between students and police officers.

Another area that needs change or new attention is setting boundaries, said Weaver.

Calling it a result of &uot;political correctness,&uot; the commissioner said too many schools are unwilling to create limits for students by establishing dress codes or expectations for behavior.

&uot;Those schools that are afraid of setting any type of boundaries … are the ones where you’re going to see more and more violence,&uot; he said.

But, not all of it can be accomplished locally.

Those at Thursday’s public meeting told Weaver and Rep. Dan Dorman, R-Albert Lea, that help was needed from the state legislature.

The key need, they said, was a change to data privacy regulations.

While date privacy rules exist to protect students, some noted the laws limit the amount of help various agencies can provide for students.

Data privacy restrictions mean school personnel can’t share information with law enforcement or social services.

Weaver said this is a problem he has already been working on.

&uot;We don’t let a police officer call the school if something happened over the weekend,&uot; he said.

In the end, he said such restrictions do more to hinder school officials, police and social workers than they do to protect personal privacy.

Stein said the inability to share information means some student needs are going unfilled.

&uot;Sometimes it seems the more serious the problem, the less information we have about it,&uot; he said.

Albert Lea Police Chief Tom Menning said that means many times police officers or teachers suspect there is a problem, but are unable to do anything.

&uot;There are a lot of people who can read warning signs,&uot; he said. &uot;But, being able to do something about it is different.

&uot;There are too many hurdles in the way to attack the problem.&uot;

Administrators, counselors and law enforcement officers agreed the goal isn’t to share gossip about students, but to make sure all the facts are known and all needs are met.

They told Weaver and Dorman that it’s hard to make sure everything possible is being done when all parties involved only have part of the knowledge available. Teachers only know what happens in class; police officers only know what crimes a student my have committed and a county social worker may have even different facts.

While more communication is needed, more people are also needed, said school and law enforcement leaders.

&uot;You are talking about people problems,&uot; said Menning, noting added equipment like computers and metal detectors aren’t going to answer the need of personal contact.

Albert Lea Superintendent Dave Prescott said he realizes social workers are needed in the school, but added that there is also a potential conflict between counselors and a desire to have smaller class sizes. Both cost money.

&uot;Those are tough decisions to make,&uot; he said.

And, School Board Member Grace Schwab said they are decisions that will likely be coming more frequently.

&uot;As dollars get tight, we have to look at our first and foremost goal, which is to educate children,&uot; she said.

But, Alden-Conger Superintendent Rita Usselman said more is needed than added bodies. It needs to be quality staff.

&uot;I can hire counselors and social workers, but if they are not the type of people kids want to go to, forget it,&uot; she said.

Freeborn County Sheriff Don Nolander agreed. &uot;We need to have a trust with those kids,&uot; he said, noting there needs to be communication between students and adults.

Weaver said he feels the root problem is too much responsibility being placed on schools.

&uot;We’re expecting our teachers to deal with issues parents used to,&uot; he said.

Stein, however, said that’s not a problem.

&uot;We don’t have a problem with that, if we are given the support to do that,&uot; he said.

Steve Bracker, the only classroom teacher in attendance, said teachers have another concern.

&uot;Teachers are concerned when a student commits an offense, is out of school for a short time and makes a joke of it with his peers,&uot; he said.

The teacher noted there needs to be more enforcement and it needs to be tougher at a court level.

Dorman said he’s been hearing the same message from other teachers in the district.

But, others noted prevention should be the goal.

Stein said the scuffles and bullying he sees on the Halverson playground could be a precursor to high school violence. He also said action today could prevent harm in years to come.