TTU Conference Offers Educators Lessons in Safety

To prove his point, Rockwood school resource officer Gene Hall's clothing concealed an arsenal as he stepped to the podium to open the Upper Cumberland Safe Schools Conference held at Tennessee Technological University on Tuesday.

From inside his jacket, baggy pants and T-shirt, he pulled a Samurai sword, a sawed-off shotgun, a .357 magnum and about a dozen knives and assorted firearms. More than 250 conference participants -- teachers, principals and supervisors, police representatives, school superintendents, school board members and county officials Ð watched as Hall presented his argument for why dress codes are a piece of the puzzle in solving school violence.

"While the keys to curbing school violence are knowing your kids and spending time on peer mediation and conflict resolution, enforcing a dress code can reduce options students have for bringing weapons to school," said Hall.

Tennessee Tech, in partnership with the Upper Cumberland Superintendents' Study Council and the Tennessee Department of Education, hosted the second annual conference to allow mid-state educators to learn from others' experiences during the past year. Participants discussed a dozen issues including dress codes, gangs and violence, search and seizures and school resource officers.

The event encouraged learning from others' successes and reflections. Blount County principal James Ratledge told about being held hostage at gunpoint by a 14-year-old student. Lincoln County High School principal James Stewart talked about a fatal shooting at his school. Both agreed trying to predict which students may become violent is difficult, if not impossible.

"My student was an honor student; he was chosen to raise the flag each morning, and he was well-liked and bright," said Ratledge.

"I see reporters on television asking what schools can do to be safe, but many problems begin at home, and we are challenged to deal with the students and the baggage of their experiences when they come to us," he said.

"Our student didn't fit the profile," said Stewart, who admitted to struggling with guilt over not identifying the potential for violence in the student. "I didn't know, and you donÕt know either, who is capable of causing the violence at school."

Ratledge offered the audience a list of suggestions he said might have helped him avoid the hostage situation or manage it better. In the list, he advocated using hand-held metal detectors for searching a suspected student and having a plan to deal with the media on school property during the incident.

Alan West, chair of the superintendents' study council, closed the conference by encouraging audience members to change what students are taught about sharing information.

"We've taught our kids not to tattle on each other," said West. "We have to teach them not to give in to peer pressure and to let someone know what they see."