COLUMBIA — As students of all ages prepare to return to class in the coming weeks, law enforcement officers, educators and mental health professionals are preparing to deal with a myriad of possible dangers facing school campuses.
The Missouri Conference on Coordinated School and College Safety and Security, held in Columbia on July 30 and 31, featured keynote speakers and multiple sessions on safety issues and possible solutions.
Friday's keynote speaker, Aaron Richman, was a former police officer from Israel who told attendees that terrorist attacks should not be the least of their concerns.
Richman, co-director of the Institute of Terrorism Research and Response that is based both in Philadelphia and Jerusalem, discussed some of the lessons he learned in dealing with terrorist incidents while serving as a patrol commander in Jerusalem, where he said bomb squads would answer as many as 25 calls during a nine-hour shift.
During his presentation, Richman discussed different scenarios he faced during his service including school shootings, suicide bombers and car bombs. He said terrorists targeted schools in rural areas of Israel.
Schools in Jerusalem use security guards that have long backgrounds in law enforcement, he said. The police department he worked with had a unit specifically designed to handle incidents at schools.
Ashland Police Chief Anthony Consiglio, who attended the lecture, said he found the content of Richman’s lecture shocking.
“It makes you want to go back and say ‘hey, we need to re-evaluate some things,” he said.
Boone County Sheriff’s Deputy Craig James, who also attended the lecture, did not say that schools in county should worry about terrorism, but said more could be done to make school security measures more proactive as opposed to reactive.
“Personally I think we put more stock in keeping our pennies and dimes safe in banks, than we do keeping our children safe,” he said. “They’re the most precious resource we have.”
James said more officers and metal detectors could help schools become more secure.
Consiglio emphasized that school security could improve with good working relationships between school personnel and law enforcement and emergency personnel.
“I think that can be a sense of relief for parents. Knowing that, if something does happen — if it should ever happen — those that are handling the situation are on the same sheet of music and are going to get it done," he said.
One of Friday's many sessions featured two administrators from Metropolitan Community College — a five-campus college in Kansas City with 18,000 students — discussed the school’s Behavior Intervention Team.
The team is composed of the school’s dean of students, a public safety representative, a member of the school’s faculty, one or more counselors and an additional member such as a coach or a division chair. The group uses a database to track students who partake in behaviors that could be considered threatening.
Behaviors are classified into three groups, the lowest including behaviors such as the use of abusive language or sexual comments, and the highest including actions such as assaults or suicide attempts.
Jon Burke, dean of student development at MCC’s Blue River campus, said the April 16, 2007, shooting at Virginia Tech — in which 33 people, including the shooter, died — was, for college administrators, “our 9/11.”
“When that happened, we thought, at least on our campuses, ‘we can’t do anything about this,’” he said.
Burke said after the incident, administrators at the school discussed ways to respond to violence, which led them to discuss how to identify students who could potentially cause violence.
John Warner, a Columbia Police Department school resource officer at West Junior High School, said that MCC's presentation was “the better one for me, personally” because of his work at the school. The department has a similar program called the Crisis Intervention Team, which is used citywide to deal with situations involving people with mental illnesses.
Warner said a program such as the one discussed at the lecture could help officers and educators by allowing them to intervene in a problem student's behavior before a serious incident occurs.
Friday afternoon marked the end of the third annual conference on school and college safety and security hosted by the Missouri School Boards' Association.