Members of the House Study Committee on School Security met Tuesday, Aug. 21, to hear presentations of best practices for keeping schools safe. Pictured from left to right: Rep. Katie Dempsey, R-Rome, Rep. Eddie Lumsden, R-Armuchee, Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, Rep. Mandi Ballinger, R-Canton, vice chair and Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, chair. Not pictured Rep. Heath Clark, R - Warner Robins, Rep. Randy Nix, R - LaGrange, Rep. Brian Prince, D - Augusta, and Rep. Valencia Stovall, D - Forest Park. ARLINDA SMITH BROADY/AJC

Ga. House school security committee meeting focuses on prevention

When the topic of school safety comes to mind, one generally thinks about school police officers, active-shooter drills and key-card access doors, but according to experts in the field, mental health and violence prevention are just as important. And many say those safety aspects are more important because they may thwart tragedy.

At the second public meeting of the House Study Committee on School Security, several presenters spoke about the need for programs to address factors that lead to school violence.

Lina Alathari, chief of the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center, talked about how her agency has been using data and research for decades to help protect the president and vice president. But after the school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, they added school safety to their list.

“It’s a misconception that threat assessment means that there’s a vulnerability or a risk,” she said. She added that even sites that appear to be the most secure can be targets for certain people.

Another misconception is that the Secret Service focuses on taking down criminals. “Our primary goal is to identify individuals before violence becomes an option or detour them before they actually show up at a site,” Alathari said.

When it comes to school safety, their resources are limited, and instead of analyzing motives and methods of 750,000 or more incidents of school violence a year, the National Threat Assessment Center looks closer at the fewer than a dozen incidents of targeted school violence that occur every year.

Incidents such as the Valentines Day shooting in Parkland, Fla., or the end-of-school-year shooting in Santa Fe, Texas are what they try to understand.

“The smallest piece of the pie is where we put our focus,” she said.

Conversely, other participants at the meeting put more emphasis on the bigger picture.

Melanie Dallas from Highland Rivers Health, a behavioral health care provider; Joel Meyers from the Geogia State University Center for Research on School Safety, School Climate and Classroom Management; Justin Hill from the Department of Education, Layla I. Fitzgerald from the Georgia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities and Gail Smith, Georgia School Counselor Association Advocacy co-chair, discussed how state of mind plays a large part in one’s actions.

While there is no single profile on perpetrators of school violence, signs that a student may be headed in that direction include

  • domestic violence at home,
  • bullying at school or cyberbullying,
  • violent entertainment, pornography, suicidal thoughts, and threats to others.

They said the only way to discover kids are going through some of those things is through interactions with trained adults: teachers, counselors, school police officers, school administrators, therapists and others.

“Children use behavior as the language of emotion,” said Fitzgerald.

Committee Chairman Rick Jasperse, R-Jasper, said he was pleased with the day’s presentations.

The committee is tasked with coming up with a proposal on best practices for school safety to present in the next legislative session. “I look at it like a see-saw,” he said. “We have to balance the prevention and the reaction.”

Jasperse said his takeaway so far is that there can’t be “silos” when it comes to the safety of our children.

“I can see already where different departments are starting to work together,” he said. “It’s a cause that nobody’s shying away from.”

Information: www.house.ga.gov/Committees/en-US/SchoolSecurity.aspx

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