A safe place for kids

Staff photo by E.J. HarrisPendleton High School students head for a security gate as the leave school for the day Friday in Pendleton.

There is no foolproof plan for keeping children safe from harm all the time.

It’s a hard fact of life, but children are vulnerable. There is no fence, lock, seatbelt, vaccine, helmet or training that guarantees trouble will stay away. As they learn about life, children are open to its risks but without the maturity to know how to handle them.

But we do owe them our best when it comes to safety, to watch for danger as it arises and to train them to see it for themselves, too.

Through the month of March, the East Oregonian will be reporting on schools’ roles in keeping our children safe.

It’s a big job. In Umatilla and Morrow counties, thousands of students from thousands of different homes and families enter the buildings every day. Some schools are brand new, others have been around since before their grandparents were in kindergarten.

Some pupils come from a healthy home full of support and love, others don’t know where they’re going to sleep each night. Some students are expected to bring home As on their report cards and join a handful of clubs and activities. Others don’t believe graduation is within their reach and would rather go unnoticed by teachers and counselors.

Keeping them safe is more than just putting up a higher fence and crossing our fingers that no one jumps over with ill intent. It’s more than running drills or hiring armed guards or arming teachers. School safety isn’t just about preventing a moment of terror and violence. That is highly important, and where we begin our series in today’s paper, but the solution to better protecting our children must be holistic.

It means reaching out to the children on the margins, and showing their peers how to do the same. It means teaching them the importance of healthy decisions outside of the school walls. It means taking threats to their safety very seriously, not just from their fellow classmates but from the adults whom we trust to be mentors to them. It means knowing the signs of depression, suicide, abuse and neglect — and knowing how to act.

For those of us not on the front lines in the schools, it means being willing to fund the necessary work of not just teaching academics, but educating young people about how to keep themselves and others safe and secure. And, yes, sometimes building that taller fence, better lock or newer building.

We can talk policy and procedure until we’re blue in the face, and strategize on how we’ll respond if worst comes to worst. That’s appropriate.

But while we’re doing that, we must also realize that the biggest threats to schools are inside the building all along. We must think prevention — not just to avoid a front page tragedy, but to ensure a better society going forward.

School is still among the safest places for children to be. But it’s also a microcosm of society. And in order to make that society better, we must be willing to invest time, care and funds in all our students and schools.

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