Like many schools, Hilldale Middle School in Muskogee, Okla., had already installed security cameras and used hand-held metal detectors to protect against possible violence.

But when a student opened fire at nearby Fort Gibson Middle School in December, officials in the Hilldale Independent School District decided they needed to do even more. That’s when the School Safety Task Force, comprised entirely of students, was formed.

“We adopted a no-taunting policy after Columbine, but the student council thought we needed more than that after five students were shot at Fort Gibson Middle School,” said Tracy Fenton, school psychologist and counselor. That non-fatal shooting took place Dec. 6, 1999. “Our school is a lot like that school, and some of our students played ball with the shooter from Fort Gibson. That’s why the Student Safety Task Force was created.”

Formed in December 1999, the task force initially consisted of 90 students in three teams: one for sixth grade, one for seventh, and one for eighth.

Student council members are allowed to select captains and co-captains to serve as group leaders, but the task force is open to any student. “We did the same thing again this year, but this time, 120 students signed up for the task force,” said Fenton.

The task force focuses on implementing prevention and early intervention strategies to decrease violence and substance abuse, according to Fenton.

Each first-period homeroom class elects a student council representative. These leaders presented school safety surveys to kids in every homeroom class shortly after the Fort Gibson incident last year and again in September 2000.

The surveys were anonymous, asking only whether the respondent was male or female and what grade level he or she was in. The surveys included questions on bullying, when and where students don’t feel safe, weapons at school, and—in this year’s survey—the impact of the task force.

The idea was to find out from students themselves what issues were most important to them in terms of safety, so school leaders could make more informed decisions.

“Some areas the students felt might be unsafe were the hallways, the school buses, restrooms, and even after-school events like football games. For the most part, the students felt safe in class and places where teachers were,” said Fenton.

The task force meets monthly for training sessions and to discuss how to make the school safer. Fenton, who has received training in crisis and school violence prevention, leads the training sessions.

“At the training sessions, we talk about dealing with bullying, behaviors that are bullying behaviors, reporting threats and incidents to school officials,” Fenton said. “The … task force has been really positive so far.”

According to Fenton, the results of this year’s survey suggest that the task force is making a difference. “From December 1999 to September 2000, the number of students who reported being bullied decreased by 5 percent. There was also a decrease of 11 percent in students who said they had bullied others,” she said.

Fenton also reported that significantly more students this year rate bullying as not a problem, or as a mild problem. Likewise, fewer students said it was a moderate problem or a severe problem eight months after the first poll was taken.

School psychologists and others have found that bullying tends to be at the root of school violence, Principal John Engelbrecht said. He said Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, the two shooters at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado, reported being bullied by their peers.

Students now are more likely to report harassment, both of themselves and others, Fenton said. Much of the time, students resolve the issue directly with each other through a team of peer mediators.

“We have expanded our peer mediation program. Right now, we have 24 peer mediators, all of whom receive training from a mental health professional [who] specializes in dealing with peer mediation,” said Fenton.

Kristen Adair, an eighth-grade student and a peer mediator, said students need to see situations from the other person’s perspective. “We don’t come up with solutions,” she said. “They do.”

Alyssa Kampf, another eighth-grade peer mediator, said the process seems to work with few repeat offenders. “I think the kids, us at school, we feel more comfortable talking to people our age,” she said. “Kids understand each other better.”

“The fact that the survey and task force are school-based is very important. Kids know what the real problems are better than teachers do,” Fenton agreed.

Links:

Hilldale Middle School, 400 East Smith Ferry Road, Muskogee, OK 74403; phone (918) 683-0763.