JEFFERSON CITY, Mo. — State Rep. Randall Relford was principal of a grade school for 30 years before he retired in 1995. Only once did he encounter a student with a gun.
Mr. Relford, D-Cameron, took the gun away, and the student was suspended.
“That was one year before I retired, and I thought then, ‘It’s about time to retire,'” he said.
School shootings have dramatically increased since then. In the past 18 months, 12 people were killed at schools in Pearl, Miss., Springfield, Ore., West Paducah, Ky., and Jonesboro, Ark. And 15 people were killed in Tuesday’s shooting in Littleton, Colo.
The Missouri General Assembly has tried to address the problem. In 1996, it passed the Safe Schools Act, which created a strict, statewide policy toward weapons in schools. It outlawed guns and other weapons in schools and on school property. It also mandated the expulsion of students who bring weapons onto school property.
“But no matter what we do, or what laws we pass, you never really know where a tragedy like this might occur or how it can be stopped,” said state Rep. Glenda Kelly, D-St. Joseph, who co-sponsored the Safe Schools Act.
Another facet of the law helped local districts fund alternative schools for students with social, disciplinary, truancy and academic problems.
St. Joseph has used the funding to set up three alternative schools for troubled children, including one each for grade school, middle school and high school students. The alternative schools have counselors and more teachers per student. About 150 of the district’s 12,200 students are part of the alternative schools.
“It’s a situation where we are constantly working with the students, working out their problems with them, showing them ways to solve problems through talking and communicating rather than through physical violence,” said Dr. Vince Paolillo, the district’s director of secondary education.
Mr. Paolillo said the alternative schools are “much more expensive.” They require specially trained counselors and teachers, as well as facilities. More state funding for these types of services is one way the state might be able to help Missouri schools avoid tragedy.
Another approach Mr. Relford suggested is to help schools fund programs that train teachers to notice warning signs among students and identify developing social problems. Mr. Relford said he’d support allowing districts to use professional development money, which the state already provides to schools to help districts continue the education of their teachers, for these training programs.
“I think you have to know your student population,” Mr. Relford said. “You have to be cognizant of the students’ feelings, know who the loners are, know where the societal problems are. But teachers have to know what to look for.”
But no quick legislative fixes are available, said state Rep. Charlie Shields, R-St. Joseph.
“We’re not going to be able to totally legislate away these kinds of random acts of violence,” Mr. Shields said.
For a “Safe Schools” guide, visit the following Internet site: