The best defense: Detecting troublesome behavior


Durango High School junior Jared Engelken speaks about his perception of safety in the school. Enlarge photo

SHAUN STANLEY/Durango Herald

Durango High School junior Jared Engelken speaks about his perception of safety in the school.

A soccer ball struck Jared Engelken in the head last year during a game. It gave him a black eye.

The Durango High School student went to the school nurse, who suspected he had been in a fight. She called the school counselor.

“I just had to reassure her it wasn’t anything like that,” Engelken said. “I think it’s pretty easy to get help if you need it.”

This kind of attention to students’ well-being may be the most important step to keeping students and schools safe, administrators say.

The task is easier at the elementary level where teachers are closely connected with each student, said Dave Tanaka, principal at Needham Elementary School.

“These teachers know these kids inside out,” he said. “You can tell if a kid is having a bad day from the second they walk in the door.”

By the time students reach middle school, teachers and staff members need to build relationships and reassure students that it is OK to report troublesome behavior, said Karen Lunceford, principal at Bayfield Middle School.

“I’m trying to create that climate of trust – that it’s OK to speak up, you’re not going to get in trouble, we’re just going to move on and fix it,” she said.

The desire for anonymity or the disdain for tattling are even stronger in high school.

At Durango High School, administrators work to breakdown that mentality by asking students to sign a “No Place For Hate” petition at the beginning of the year. The pledge aims to eliminate stereotypes by teaching respect for all humankind.

Students need a reliable way to report problems, whether it’s through a trusted adult or anonymous reporting service such as Safe2Tell, said Kathy Morris, safe school coordinator for San Juan Board of Cooperative Educational Services.

Safe2Tell is a toll-free hotline for students, teachers and others to report violent or troubling events. The goal is to break the “code of silence” by giving students an anonymous way to report threatening behavior.

The program was developed in response to the Columbine High School shootings in April 1999. The shooters, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, told peers they were planning something, Morris said, but no one reported it because students didn’t know who to tell.

“I see that we’re having more conversations, which is really positive,” she said. “We’ve got to fight complacency.”

Students need to be aware about their own safety, said Dan Riecks, who was a sophomore at Columbine High School during the 1999 shooting. It is one of the hardest things to teach middle school and high school kids, he said.

“The best prevention that we have is peers,” said Riecks, who is now 30 and works as a truancy clerk at Durango High School. “The more eyes peers have on each other, the more programs that they’re involved in, the better.

“Some kids don’t even understand the difference between being a tattletale and notifying the right people,” he said. “If you’re scared about anything, tell someone. If you don’t think you have somebody to tell, there are anonymous lines you can call. Just get it out there. If nothing else, it will make you feel better.”

shane@durangoherald.com