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Superintendent: Relationships key to keeping students safe

November 23, 2018

GEORGE, Iowa (AP) — A small school district in northwest Iowa is championing a low-cost approach to stemming student violence, bullying and disconnection — through relationships.

The seemingly simple approach has stopped a possible school attack in Wisconsin, John Eyerly said.

Students reported a teen making threats where Eyerly used to work. The police investigated and found it credible; the would-be perpetrator had access to a gun, he said.

That motivated Eyerly, now superintendent of the George-Little Rock Schools, to continue systematically monitoring and fostering a school climate where teens feel comfortable asking for help or reporting threats.

Many Iowa teens don’t feel that way, however. About one in 10 students said there’s no adult at school they feel comfortable turning to, according to the Iowa Youth Survey.

Yet appropriate adult relationships are key to identified students who are depressed, self-harming, or engaging in risky behaviors.

That includes suicide prevention: 13 percent of Iowa teens have seriously thought about killing themselves, according to the 2016 survey.

In addition, bullying is a rampant problem in schools that can often go undetected.

“It doesn’t mean they’re going to be school shooters,” Eyerly told The Des Moines Register . “It’s more about giving someone, on a human level, some TLC.”

School violence expert Michael Dorn applauds the relationship-based approach, saying it could help save lives.

As executive director of Safe Havens International, he’s worked 300 catastrophic school events, including 16 school shootings in the United States, Canada and Mexico.

In studying trends in campus violence, experts have found:

— Twice as many people die from suicide on K-12 campuses than from an active shooter.

— More than 90 percent of people slain on K-12 campuses were not killed from active-shooter events.

— Parking lot fatalities claim more lives on school campuses than homicide.

“We’re preparing for the most frightening and catastrophic events — we better not dismiss those,” Dorn said. “But we can’t do that at the expense of ignoring the more typical events that claim more lives.”

Dorn urged school leaders to not simplify the complex issues of school safety and instead engage in multiple types of safety training, including behavior-based approaches that help identify and connect with disconnected individuals.

School bullying affects tens of thousands of Iowa students each year. In total, more than 40 percent surveyed said they’ve been bullied or made fun of in some way.

The George-Little Rock district surveys school staffers about the students they have relationships with. A spreadsheet shows the numbers of connections each student has. The goal is to find students who don’t have any relationships and who need help with challenges that could include depression, family issues, bullying or abuse.

“It’s not what we think as the adults, it’s what the students feel. Do they feel like it’s a kind and humane environment?” he said.

He urged school leaders to be persistent and compassionate.


Information from: The Des Moines Register, http://www.desmoinesregister.com

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