EDITORIAL: School safety is critical, but so are other measures

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It seems as though hardly a week passes in this country without some news about an act of violence at a school or districts considering some new kind of security measure.

Last week, Park County School District No. 1 leaders and Powell police announced that multiple students had been involved in discussing some kind of threat against Powell Middle School.

With a continuing investigation and the matter involving juveniles, authorities released few details about exactly what kind of a threat was made, but one student is now facing expulsion.

Tragically, several mass shootings in American schools have brought us to a point where comments that might have once been dismissed as innocuous are triggering investigations and criminal charges.

“Now, can you afford to ignore it? The answer’s no — you can’t,” Park County Juvenile Court Judge Bill Simpson recently mused. “So, you see a lot of those kind of cases that I think legitimately come before the court; you’ve got to address them. I don’t think anybody would want to say, ‘Well, I just thought they were kidding.’”

It’s one example of how each school shooting sends ripples across the entire country, inflicting pain and disrupting lives far beyond the victims and their loved ones.

For example, consider how much time and focus we, in Powell, Wyoming, are now devoting to try to prevent a mass shooting. On our school board and in our community, we’re batting around the idea of training and arming school staffers, pondering bullet-proof glass and requiring everyone to show their driver’s license before being allowed into a Powell school.

School board trustees discussed safety again last week, and Superintendent Jay Curtis noted that while a school shooting could happen here, statistically speaking, the chances are miniscule.

Curtis said local school officials must weigh that risk as they look at a variety of security and training measures that may restrict personal freedom in schools.

“Unless you became on-level with the state penitentiary, there is no way to get that risk to zero,” Curtis said.

It’s wise to prepare for an act of violence, but we also must not lose focus on the fact that there are other, more definite threats to our children’s safety and lives.

As the publication FiveThirtyEight noted last year, “The majority of gun deaths in America aren’t even homicides, let alone caused by mass shootings. Two-thirds of the more than 33,000 gun deaths that take place in the U.S. every year are suicides.”

Data collected by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control in 2015 (the most recent year available) is also clear: Young people between the ages of 10 and 24 are considerably more likely to die by suicide than they are to have their life taken from them by a murderer.

In fact, school-aged children are the most likely to die in a motor vehicle crash. The CDC data says 763 children between the ages of 5 and 14 perished in car crashes in 2015 — four times as many children as were killed with a firearm that year.

The numbers make sense: While most communities have never suffered a shooting in their school, you’d be hard-pressed to find a single one that has not lost a child to suicide or a preventable car crash; that’s certainly the case in Powell.

These sobering facts are worth considering as our school board and this community spends an ever-increasing number of hours discussing, researching and debating ways to ready ourselves for the threat of an active shooter.

Given the data, we should be making sure we spend at least as much time and effort coming up with ways to prevent suicides and to promote safe driving. Crafting a more effective anti-bullying program or anti-texting-while-driving campaign may save more students’ lives than any new security measure.

Those efforts shouldn’t stop at the schoolhouse doors, either: Anyone in this community can help take a stand against bullying, comfort the discouraged or even just put their phones away when taking the wheel.

The concept of “saving a child’s life” can conjure up an image of some hero stopping an advancing gunman, but the reality can be so much simpler.

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