Missouri education officials meet on campus safety

Friday, July 31, 2009

COLUMBIA, Mo. -- A rash of campus shootings in recent years has made surveillance cameras and emergency locks nearly as common as blackboards in today's classrooms, said educators at a school safety conference Thursday.

"It's a rude awakening to the realities out there," said Maureen Dixon-Sullivan, a St. Louis Community College student and aspiring elementary school teacher. "The world today is so different from when we went to school."

Dixon-Sullivan joined nearly 300 teachers, local school board members, social workers and campus police officers from across Missouri on Thursday at an annual school safety and security conference. The Missouri School Boards' Association sponsored the event.

The speakers included survivors of campus shootings at Northern Illinois and Central Arkansas universities, a retired FBI agent and an Israeli anti-terrorism expert.

"People have come a long way since Columbine," said former FBI profiler Mary Ellen O'Toole, referring to the 1999 Colorado school shooting in which 13 people died. "They're far more attentive [to school violence]."

One panel included tips from safety experts and law enforcement officers on how to "create chaos" when confronted with a school shooter. Among the suggestions: fighting back using pencils, chairs, books, coffee and other classroom staples.

"I could not stand there and let one of my students take a bullet," said David Jungmeyer, a teacher at Calvary Lutheran High School in Jefferson City. "I would have to fight back."

Participants debated the value of allowing concealed weapons on campus, a measure supported by the National Rifle Association after the 2007 Virginia Tech shootings. Utah is the only state allowing concealed weapons on its campuses, although individual schools in other states permit them.

Dr. Gerald Wilmes, medical director at Northwest Missouri State University, said most school communities believe a shooting is unlikely -- until it happens on their campus.

Gunshots were fired into a crowd leaving a homecoming football game at his rural school in Maryville in October, 2007. No students were injured.

"It was thought up to that event that we were a safe haven, impervious to all the things we've seen in recent years," he said. "But it brought it to our front doorstep that night."

Robert Stein, Missouri's higher education commissioner, offered an emotional plea for audience members to take the issue of campus safety seriously. He suggested schools consider offering general studies courses on personal safety and responding to violent situations.

"We've only touched the tip of the iceberg on safety and security," he said.

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