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To keep schools safe, more counselors needed

May 19, 1999

If a student comes to school with a gun or other weapon, chances are good that other students know about it, says Judy Hale, the president of the West Virginia Federation of Teachers. The problem, Hale says, is that students don't have anybody they believe they can talk to.

Hale made her remarks Monday in front of a legislative subcommittee formed last month after two teens killed themselves and 13 other students in Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.

Her answer to what seems to be a serious communication problem between students and adult authorities: Hire more counselors. It's an idea that makes sense, if only because there are so few of them now.

A spokesperson for the state Department of Education said that statewide there's only one counselor for every 2,000 students. Many of those are bogged down with paperwork, according to state Sen. Larry Edgell, who's also a fifth-grade teacher in Wetzel County. The lone counselor there is too busy filling out required reports to see children, Edgell said.

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Because budgets are tight, we don't expect to see a dramatic increase in the number of counselors at all levels in the school system, at least not in the next few years. Where it should happen is in the elementary school area, which research has shown is crucial to a child's success or failure in later life.

Elementary school is where children begin to form attitudes about their classmates and separate into groups that give them status. Those who are awkward, overweight or even especially intelligent may start to be singled out for teasing and worse.

If the child who becomes a victim has someone to turn to, someone who makes it his or her job to listen and work to stop children from targeting each other for abuse, the word "Columbine" might come to represent something bad from the distant past, instead of a horrible possibility for the near future.

As for the cost, taxpayers should reflect on the fact that safe schools will only be achieved when officials find a way to keep children's frustrations and fantasies from becoming motivations for murder.

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