Austin bullying group: There are lessons from Newtown

Published 9:02am Wednesday, December 19, 2012

The biggest thing Austin can learn from Newtown, Conn., is that the community needs to come together.

That’s what Community Against Bullying members, Austin Public Schools officials, and local residents discussed Tuesday night during a CAB meeting. From discussing the effects of violent media on children and escapism, to drug abuse and the state of mental health treatment, everyone agreed the answer to helping those who feel ostracized involves pooling resources and finding a way to tackle the problem.

“It’s not just a school issue,” said Kathey Ewing, Austin parent. “We all need to come together.”

Parents expressed concerns about the Austin school district’s response to the Newtown shooting, which took place last week. Adam Lanza allegedly killed his mother, then 20 first-grade students and six staff and faculty at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Friday before killing himself.

Austin Public Schools didn’t issue a statement to the shooting, though some school districts in Minnesota, such as Albert Lea Public Schools, prepared a statement on school safety for parents. Though there was no tragedy taking place in Minnesota, some parents told school officials that they would have liked some sort of letter or information from the district reassuring parents their children were safe.

Director of Special Services Sheri Willrodt said district administrators discussed releasing a statement but didn’t want to add to the confusion and concern surrounding the tragedy. According to Willrodt, the district encouraged parents to get in touch with school staff and principals to ask questions on how the school would deal with the tragedy.

Yet the audience recognized many factors come into play with any school shooting, and parents asked district counselors what could be done to encourage kindness and increase positive social interaction between students. Austin High School counselor Thor Bergland said while students go on retreats like Youth Frontier, where they learn about social interaction and positive character, social learning is just one piece of their school day.

In addition, Bergland said, solutions to helping every child navigate their way to school are far more complex than parents would think. Some students with mental health needs have to take medication or get other forms of help, and schools have to work with local medical centers in order to help those students.

Ultimately, Bergland said, preventing tragedies like Newtown requires more attention to people, and more emphasis on social learning.

“We’ve just got to stress that humanity again,” Bergland said. “We’re busy. We’ve got high-flying kids with busy lives and we pass that busyness off on them.”

Bergland said the district will reach out to area organizations like Mower Refreshed, Mayo Clinic Health System in Austin, and others at its next support professional meeting on Jan. 14. The theme of that meeting is dealing with drugs in schools, and Bergland said he hopes the district strengthens its ties with other agencies to combat the local drug culture and help area students.

“We’ve got to really just get more education and acknowledgment of things like the drug culture, behaviors that go with it, and mental health,” he said.

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