By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist
He looked like a typical high school student.”
That’s what the officer said who arrested Nikolas Cruz, the teen who killed 17 people in the deadly school shooting in February in Parkland, Florida.
In the weeks since that shooting, countless Americans have vocalized grief, terror and outrage at the way schools seem to be growing less and less safe. They have taken to Facebook, organized school walkouts and asked for gun reform.
And they have pored over ways to identify potentially violent children and teens and reach them before they ever pull the trigger.
As these conversations swirled nationwide, Alabama wasn’t excluded from the pain or the cry for a response. On March 7, a 17-year-old girl was shot to death and another student was wounded at Huffman High School in Birmingham.
Smart on Safety Initiative
The shooting came one day after Gov. Kay Ivey unveiled her Smart on Safety Initiative, a strategy she said will help to secure Alabama’s schools in the future.
“In announcing a four-pronged approach to school safety, we will build on the foundation already in place and allow all available state resources to be focused on efforts to keep our children safe,” Ivey said. “Ensuring safety in our schools is a bipartisan issue, and we must do all we can to prevent violence and be sure we are ready to respond in the event such violence does occur.”
According to the governor, the four prongs are:
• Secured Schools. Alabama will support local school officials to meet safety needs and will use the Education Advancement and Technology Fund for this purpose.
• We Know Our Kids. Schools will work to identify students who are at risk of acting violently and intervene before it happens.
• Emergency Operations Plans (EOPs). Schools will work with law enforcement and first responders to provide a coordinated response when an emergency happens. This will include training of school personnel.
• Governor’s Securing Alabama Facilities of Education (SAFE) Council. Ivey named a council to get a strategy together quickly and set it in motion. The governor’s SAFE Council will propose a plan by the end of April.
In the meantime, what can Alabama’s teachers, parents and youth leaders do to keep their students safe?
Kristin Lowrey, clinical director of child and adolescent counseling at Pathways Professional Counseling, said they can watch for warning signs themselves.
“Hindsight certainly is 20/20, and I think that in all the cases that I have read about, there were warning signs, but it often doesn’t all add up until after the fact unfortunately,” Lowrey said.
Not every warning sign is an indicator that something bad will happen, but that doesn’t mean it should be ignored, she said.
She encouraged parents, foster parents, youth leaders and teachers to be conscious of the following behavioral issues and think of them as yellow lights — signs that they should slow down and be more vigilant and aware:
• Verbalizing violent intent
• Obsession with violence and/or weapons
• Showing no empathy
• Blaming everyone else for their problems and not taking responsibility for themselves
• Having no hopes and dreams
• Experiencing depression
• Social isolation
• Animal cruelty
• Suicidal or homicidal thoughts
“For parents it is important to be connected with your children,” Lowrey said. “Talk to them often, but most importantly listen to them and know what is going on in their world.”
Monitor social media use
Know their friends and their friends’ families, she said. Monitor their social media use. And seek help if you see that a child is showing some of these traits.
“Connect with your child’s school to find out how they are acting at school — the school may have concerns as well,” she said. “In some cases, starting with counseling could be beneficial.”
If a child is making suicidal or homicidal comments, it’s best to go straight to a counselor and/or medical personnel who can help, Lowrey said. “And if a child has made comments about violent intent, it is important to notify the authorities to ensure that everyone remains safe.”
Teachers and youth leaders also can connect with children, she said.
“The more connections that a child has, the better off they are,” Lowrey said. “It is important to talk with parents if concerns arise, as the parents might have other concerns that help to clarify what the child’s needs are.”
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