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Students, faculty key in helping prevent school violence, experts say

Renatta Signorini
| Thursday, Feb. 15, 2018, 4:24 p.m.

Students and school faculty should adopt a “see something — say something” mentality regarding the potential to prevent school violence, according to experts.

Students can be a “first line of defense” in preventing the type of violence at a Florida school Wednesday where 17 people were killed and several others injured allegedly by a gun-wielding expelled student, said Gene Komondor, emergency management coordinator for North Huntingdon.

“They should absolutely be encouraged” to report suspicious activity to authorities, said Komondor, who is part of a safe schools committee at Norwin School District.

That concept worked to prevent the possibility of a catastrophe at Uniontown Area High School last month when a student overheard a troubling conversation and reported it to police . A 14-year-old who threatened to shoot students at the school was arrested Jan. 25, and investigators said they seized a cache of weapons from his Fayette County bedroom.

It wouldn't hurt for school district officials to alert local law enforcement to circumstances about a particular student who has been expelled, said Sarah Daly, a criminology professor at SaintVincent College in Unity.

“The problem ... is that the expectation is that he's handled and that he's not a problem anymore,” she said.

Gary L. Sigrist Jr., president and chief executive officer of Safeguard Risk Solutions, agreed.

“Just because that student is no longer in the school doesn't mean he's no longer a threat,” Sigrist said, suggesting districts conduct threat assessments on potentially violent students to prevent such behavior and protect would-be victims.

Nikolas Cruz, 19, had been expelled from the Broward County school he is accused of opening fire on with a semi-automatic weapon, the Associated Press reported.

Daly is wrapping up a manuscript for her book, “Everyday School Violence,” which will be published this year and focuses on incidents such as bullying and fist fights. An April symposium for area school officials and lawmakers is planned at the college to help educators learn how to handle and de-escalate those types of situations.

Schools across the region have implemented tighter security measures, added armed police officers, held active shooter training sessions and coordinated with local emergency responders in an effort to prevent or learn how to react in a violent situation. Norwin recently sent a precautionary letter to parents reinforcing the “see something — say something” concept.

Those are all good steps for districts to take, Sigrist said.

“It can happen anywhere, but that doesn't mean it has to happen,” he said.

Cruz is accused of pulling a fire alarm at the end of the school day, the AP reported. That time of day is when security typically relaxes as school buses arrive and students depart, Sigrist said. He suggested teachers be trained to peek outside of their classroom doors before evacuating for fire alarms.

“Just make sure there's not a threat in the hallway,” he said.

Keeping up with ongoing training for faculty is important, Komondor said.

“It can't be a one-time thing, it has to be an ongoing process,” he said. “People have to understand what their roles and responsibilities are.”

But copycat school violence is becoming “a part of a cultural fabric,” Daly said.

“This may be an idea that (a student) may not have at otherwise and now they've become a part of society as a viable option,” she said. “We need to look at ... mass shooters as suicidal people.”

Renatta Signorini is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 724-837-5374, rsignorini@tribweb.com or via Twitter @byrenatta.

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