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Decatur's school safety program is 'impressive'

By M.J. Ellington (334) 262-1104

MONTGOMERY — Decatur's most valuable tool to keep schools safe may be its subtle, often unspoken communitywide message that children matter.

Decatur City Schools Superintendent Sam Houston, in Montgomery on Tuesday for a school violence summit for law enforcement officers, said students in the city get that message and believe it.

"I have been in Decatur 37 years, and the thing that always impresses me most is the way people value kids," Houston said. "Any effort to benefit the children, they are willing to do. It sets the tone for the whole community."

Houston and Oak Park Middle School Principal Dwight Satterfield were part of a panel of four educators selected to describe their safety programs. Decatur School Safety Supervisor for Alternative Education Phil Hastings also attended.

One of the state's best

Attorney General Troy King, whose office planned the summit, said Decatur's school safety program is one of the state's best, calling it "impressive."

Houston said the city's school resource officers may be the best school safety investment the city has ever made. "They help set the tone for the students," Houston said.

King said Decatur's safety program is a model for others to emulate.

In Decatur, school officials, law enforcement officers, fire department officials and representatives from social service organizations hold regular meetings to discuss school needs and safety issues. Communications equipment, alternative schools and a team trained to respond to crisis also are also part of the package, Houston said.

He said cell phones that link school officials with the central office and law enforcement are recent additions to the system's emergency response team.

The system also has reference materials to help make it easier to respond to a crisis. Materials include communications equipment on school buses, lists of drivers and students who are on school buses, and diagrams of buildings in the system.

The system also has aerial maps of school campuses and devices enabling law enforcement officers to enter schools in an emergency, even if the buildings are locked. In the city's alternative school, Houston said, video equipment links to the police station.

Houston said it also helps to have a school psychologist trained in crisis management, who goes to all school incidents when needed. The crisis team includes ministers, law enforcement and others with crisis response training.

In recent years, Houston said, the system saw the need for bilingual educators to communicate with students in the city's growing bilingual population. In some cities, school incidents grew worse because there was no one on staff who could understand and help communicate in times of confusion.

"We don't wait for a crisis to happen," Hastings said. "Students can't learn and teachers can't teach when schools are not safe."

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