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WKD/School Violence-Jen/4-17 for web

Are out children still target of violence?

The state's Safe Schools Act appears to have helped lower the number of gun incidents in West Virginia schools. But problems with bullies, fights and threats persist, some counselors and administrators say.

West Virginia schools are reporting smaller numbers of students bringing guns to school, according to statistics obtained by the Exponent-Telegram. But there continues to be substantial problems with students who bully, fight and threaten, say school counselors, students and administrators.

And area students say they often feel like the next school tragedy is just down the hallway.

"I'm so afraid every day since Columbine because I do think it could happen here," said Toni Buffey, a Robert C. Byrd High School senior. "We've had notes written on the bathroom wall in lipstick saying a bomb is going to go off, and it scares you."

Keeping track of violence

West Virginia school gun incidents dropped from 58 in 1994 to 14 in 2000, according to a report from the West Virginia Department of Education.

However, the state Department of Education does not track the other violent acts that don't involve guns, said Mary Jane Kerwood, the department's coordinator for safe and drug-free schools.

Instead, reports on bullying, fighting and threats against students and teachers are kept by each county, Kerwood said.

But the way each county keeps these records can be drastically different.

Nancy Walker oversees the student record-keeping system for the state Department of Education.

The counties can use that system to record discipline information.

"If they have incidents at schools, they may not record them at all,"Walker said. "But they can use the system if they want to."

In some counties, school officials aren't permitted to keep discipline records past the end of the school year, Walker said.

A parent, a scholar or even the state Board of Education, for that matter, would face a tedious task in trying to study statewide or regional trends.

"Each county has the discretion of what they enter and it varies from school to school," said Doddridge County Superintendent Jeff Moss.

Some counties keep the records of fights and threats in paper files, after receiving the paper forms from the schools, he said.

Violence in the schools

Harrison County schools, with 11,780 students enrolled, had 445 student fights last year, said Kathy Loretta, Harrison County Safe and Drug Free Schools Coordinator.

Tiffany Cartagena, a 13-year-old Harrison County student, has been in three fights in middle school. Once she was jumped in the hallway. Away from the eyes of teachers and security cameras, she was knocked down and kicked by two girls, she said.

"I've been a victim of bullying and I've tried to ignore it and I've tried to fight back," Cartagena said. "That shouldn't happen in school -- it should be a safe place to go and you should feel safe there."

Cartagena said the students involved were suspended. But she worries about going to high school next year to face the same kinds of encounters.

Kathy Crowl, Cartagena's mother, has two other children enrolled in Harrison County. She has seen them involved in altercations at school, also.

"My oldest son has had his face slammed into a wall, was pushed off a sliding board and was thrown down a set of bleachers," she said. "It terrifies me because I don't think the suspension policy works, and when we have kids who are violent we need to get them help other than the justice system."

Lewis County Superintendent Joe Mace is deeply concerned. Only a small number of students in the county continue to be the troublemakers, Mace said. But the threats, he said, have become more serious during the past two years.

"There continues to be a growing disrespect for teachers and principals, and from the incident reports I see, these kids are capable of hurting someone," Mace said. "If you look at these (national) incidents, it's not the people coming in off the street doing the damage ... it's our kids."

What makes students violent?

Mace believes family environment has an effect on students' behaviors. He has dealt with parents who have lost control and are even frightened of their own children, he said.

"Sixty percent of all the discipline referrals I get during the year come from single-parent families," he said. "A lot of those parents have to work and aren't home to enforce curfews, and the children don't have father figures to help with guidance and structure."

Wendy Imperial, Bridgeport Middle School guidance counselor, said she is disturbed at the way students across the nation are dealing with their anger. From her counseling experiences, she has seen an unsettling trend.

"They are growing up in a different age than we did. We may have gotten mad but we never thought of bringing a gun to school," she said. "These students are exposed to things like video games where they shoot and bomb cities and schools, and it desensitizes them."

Imperial cited an advertisement in a popular video game magazine showing scantily clad women labeled as assassins.

"The students are talking about grenades. That's not a common word for children to use," she said.

Guidance counselors and school personnel encourage students to report their problems or threats they may have overheard. That may save lives, Imperial said.

"How many times do we hear that the kids knew and didn't tell?" she said. "I hope that anyone who hears something will report it."

Programs to help

The state requires peer mediation programs in schools. Their mission: Curb small situations before they spiral out of control. The mediators are students and teachers. They're trained to resolve disputes by bringing all parties together to discuss the problem, Kerwood said.

"It takes care of little conflicts in schools, and it keeps the little conflicts from escalating into a bigger problem," she said.

Cartagena has tried the peer mediations. The disputes seemed resolved, the 13-year-old said. Afterward, though, she was attacked again.

The schools do offer numerous student assemblies throughout the year to discuss violence and bullying. Schools also offer instruction for students on how to respect their peers. Also, they are taught how to handle their anger, Kerwood said.

"We understand it's prevention programs that keep our kids safe along with community and parents -- it's not metal detectors or police at the schools," Kerwood said.

"I think we have a sound philosophy, but you can't ever say it won't happen, because we have troubled children just like we have troubled adults," she said.

Crowded juvenile detention centers often result in delays in getting the serious offenders out of the school system, Mace said.

"It takes months of paperwork to get someone in, and when you have a difficult student it can be critical," he said.

"The reality is there is little we can do today," Mace said. "We have suspensions and expulsions, but we need the help of parents at home to help us discipline the kids and teach them respect."

Staff writer Jennifer Biller can be reached at 626-1449 or jbiller@exponent-telegram.com.

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