"The shootings and violence that occurred at Columbine High School are a tragic event and touch every school community by their very nature," Dr. Marockie said. "We are deeply saddened and want the people of Colorado to know that they are in our thoughts and prayers."
Marockie noted that even as investigators and school officials search for why the violence occurred, education officials throughout the nation must ask whether they have done everything possible to try to prevent a similar occurrence elsewhere.
"While there is no absolute deterrent, West Virginia has taken definitive, exemplary steps to try to ensure safety in our public schools. In addition to the Safe Schools initiatives launched in 1995 and expanded since then, we are providing ongoing training for principals, teachers and school personnel on crisis intervention and crisis management," Marockie said. "The West Virginia Department of Education has employees who work full-time on the many aspects involved in Safe Schools issues and staff development."
The West Virginia Safe Schools program has two major components: the Responsible Students project and the Safe and Drug-Free Schools initiative. Through these programs education staff provide student assistance, teach conflict resolution, and oversee peer mediation. The Responsible Students program, teaches responsible behavior by clearly identifying a series of standards, expectations and rewards for positive behavior and class preparedness. It seeks to create a non-threatening atmosphere in which teachers can teach and students can learn. By the end of the 1997-98 school year, more than 47 West Virginia schools were validated as demonstration sites for the Responsible Students program.
The Safe and Drug-Free Schools initiative funds a broad range of activities, including violence, drug, alcohol and tobacco prevention. It also supports a safe, disciplined learning environment through Safe School Planning, peer mediation/conflict resolution, Natural Helpers, Student Assistance Teams and Crisis Intervention Team Training.
Results from the initiatives have been positive. Teachers report that students participating in the Responsible Students program have demonstrated improvement in school performance, daily attendance, conflict resolution and alternatives to violence. A comprehensive study of the project is under way and results should be available within the next year.
In addition, the weapons incidents reported in schools declined to 207 in the 1997-98 school year compared with 264 in the 1995-96 school year, Dr. Marockie said.
"It is absolutely essential that we begin to address these issues with our students before they occur. That's how we are going to solve the problem of violence in schools. We must teach our students responsible behavior by making it clear to them precisely what is appropriate and what we expect from them," he said. "The Responsible Students program does that."
In 1996, West Virginia expanded the Safe Schools initiative by funding alternative education programs – schooling for students who were expelled or suspended from regular classes because of inappropriate or disruptive behavior. The program is designed to eliminate disruptions in public schools and still help troubled students receive an education and get back on the right track.
After three years, at least half the county school systems are reporting a decrease in dropout rates and an increase in graduation rates. Almost half of the students who were in alternative education the last school year -- about 5,000 -- have improved behavior to allow them return to traditional school settings during the current school year, according to a West Virginia Department of Education survey.
In 1998, Dr. Marockie directed a team of education professionals to evaluate additional ways to make West Virginia's schools safer. The team developed seven recommendations that address safe security measures for buildings and grounds and address the climate of the school.
"Safe Schools is an ongoing effort. It cannot be learned and then left alone," Dr. Marockie said. "We are continually providing training and support to our school professionals."
During last fall's statewide seminar for school principals, the state Department of Education focused on safe schools by leading training and discussion based on early warning signs of trouble, crisis intervention and crisis management and provided a comprehensive manual. The West Virginia Fire Marshal's Office and the State Police also participated. The State Police department has a prepared program of detecting and dealing with firearms in the schools, and the Fire Marshal focused on aspects such as bomb threats.
Next month, Safe Schools staff development sessions are scheduled to teach school personnel how to identify at-risk anti-social behaviors, develop proactive approaches to preventing school violence, develop classroom management techniques, and use community agencies for support. Training sessions for counties also are scheduled in mid-May to teach how to foster respect among students and institute zero tolerance for bullying or disrespectful behavior.
"West Virginia has taken a proactive approach to try to prevent violence and unsafe behavior in schools, but it takes the entire community's support and diligence to make our schools truly safe," Dr. Marockie said. "We must work even harder to provide the safe and productive learning environment that our students and teachers deserve and need."