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Task force polishes safe school recommendations

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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) -- A list of school safety recommendations is ready to be presented to state leaders after some last-minute polishing by a task force of educators, law officers, administrators and parents.

Following the December middle school shooting in Fort Gibson, the Task Force on School Violence was charged with finding ways to make schools safer.

After a month of committee discussions, the panel finished work on the project Thursday, handing over the list to top education officials.

The panel focused on security measures such as the need for a two-way communication source between classrooms and video-monitoring devices on school buses.

Making prevention training a part of teacher preparation programs as well as providing students with annual violence, suicide and substance abuse prevention training were included in the recommendations.

"The need for training came out of all five committees, whether it was for students in conflict resolution, or staff training or community training for parents," said Gayle Jones, coordinator for Safe and Drug-Free Schools.

One of the first topics of conversation Thursday was the plight of school counselors.

"Some are so bogged down in academics that they don't have time for behavioral counseling," said panel member Ronny Greenberg.

Susan Morris, of the Youth and Family Resource Center, agreed. She recommended a partnership program where local agencies would provide behavioral counselors to school districts.

Such a system is in place in Enid, said former state board of education member Cyndy Shepherd. Shepherd said the district uses counselors from the Department of Human Services, sharing the cost with the agency.

To stop problems before they start, the panel recommended more social education for preschoolers, including social skills development and anger management classes.

"You've got to start out way, way early, because the people law enforcement deals with, that's where it starts," said Jim Cox, executive director of the Oklahoma Association of Chiefs of Police.

The need for more long-term alternative programs was a priority for Ron Walker, principal at Jackson Middle School in Oklahoma City. He said some students just don't fit into normal schools, adding that it could even be dangerous having them there. Alternative programs have to give those students attention, Walker said.

"Being realistic, a 40-, 50- or 60-day program is not enough," he said. "You have to have a facility where students can go in and receive the services they need in a long-term setting."

The task force also focused on ways to better involve parents in their children's schooling.

"We hold parenting classes, but the parents who show up aren't the ones who need parenting classes," said Edmond principal Lynne Rowley.

Some educators suggested parents could be steered toward volunteer programs at school plays and other big-draw events. Others worried that there was simply no way to involve parents who didn't want to be.

Other recommendations called for more high-visibility adults in schools, and making it a felony to deface school property.

State Superintendent Sandy Garrett said she will present the panel's guidelines to the Oklahoma Board of Education in May. They also will be sent to school districts, Gov. Frank Keating and the Legislature, where Garrett said she hoped some of the recommendations could be worked into pending bills.

She said the task force likely will be a permanent fixture instate education, with a continuing mission in what she calls a difficult time for education.

"Unfortunately, we're seeing more dysfunctional families, higher divorce rate, different kinds of families. Those are things that impact students and learning," Garrett said.
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