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Posted March 19, 2013

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March 2013: Counselors Make Safer Schools

Read the superintendent’s column that appeared in the Albuquerque Journal March 12.

School safety is a topic that comes up just about everywhere I go these days. It’s carry-over from the horrific massacre we lived through in Newtown a few months back. There’s still a lot of heartache around this but it’s also helped us understand that schools can’t ever be  about academics exclusively.

Since then those of us at Albuquerque Public Schools, like our colleagues nationwide, have been studying, brainstorming and re-evaluating our circumstances to get a grasp on the areas of campus safety we have control of and identify those we need a better handle on.

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan recently invited me to take part in a conversation about school security with several other urban school superintendents.

The topic can be daunting. We discussed many possibilities including comprehensive community approaches to school safety, implementing new programs designed to identify students in crisis and improvements in early mental health referrals.

What I found most interesting was our consensus that mental health is where the conversation should begin.

APS has more than 200 counselors in our 142 schools.  They are among the most highly trained professionals on our campuses. They are required to have a master’s degree and are licensed by the state of New Mexico.

They are on the front lines every day, trained and educated in the field of early detection, prevention and treatment.  I think of them as our triage staff. They know what to look for and where to send a student for the next level of care if necessary.

A nurse assists when a medical issue arises. The primary responsibility of a teacher is to help students reach their academic potential. Counselor’s deal with it all - everything from suicide prevention, substance abuse, domestic violence, registration, college and career planning and every day hardships like coping with a divorce in the family or news of a cancer diagnosis.

There isn’t a simple fail-proof plan to prevent violence from happening in our schools, but counselors together with our school police are critical.  They advise us on practical daily steps that keep us alert and raise awareness of potential risks. For example, in high school we’ve assigned all students an “advisory” class. The idea is to have students report to one class each day so the teacher has the opportunity to get to know the student and possibly recognize a change in behavior.

I’ll be the first to admit we need more counselors in our schools. Fortunately, we have a range of professionals helping our counselors improve school safety. The Albuquerque Police Department and the Bernallilo County Sheriff’s Department continue to dedicate many of their officers to our middle and high school campuses. We have 180 employees who make up the APS School Police force, 56 of them are sworn officers. We have teachers, administrators, social workers, volunteers and support staff who chose this profession because they care.

Reporters and concerned parents ask often how the Sandy Hook murders will change our security protocols. Student and staff safety has always been our priority. We will continue to collaborate with local law enforcement, refine and practice our site safety plans and encourage public and community conversations about the role of mental health in our schools so mental illness in young people doesn’t go untreated and innocent lives aren’t threatened.

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