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Local effort targets school violence/Milton joins interagency group

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FRANK J. SCHULTZ
November 2, 2007
— Rock County schools might be safer because of an unheralded effort under way since 2003.

Officials can’t say whether they’ve averted a Columbine or a Virginia Tech-style attack.


“Prevention is hard to measure,” said Doug Reynolds of the Beloit School District, the unofficial dean of local school-violence prevention efforts.


However, “both school districts, Beloit and Janesville, definitely have derailed individuals who might have otherwise caused violent acts in schools,” Reynolds said.


It all started when local officials trained for a week in 2002 at the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children. They learned about a new model of cooperation among local authorities that the Department of Justice was trying to duplicate across the country.


Local officials took it to heart and created the Rock County Interagency Team.


An impressive array of Rock County school, law enforcement and justice system leaders assembled in the Rock County Courthouse on Thursday to renew their pledge to work together.


The occasion was the Milton School District and Milton police joining the group.


The interagency group began with police and public schools in Janesville and Beloit in 2003. The Clinton School District joined later.


The group meets regularly to discuss cases of troubled students. Each agency might have a piece of information about a student. Together that information helps the agencies to decide how best to help.


In the past, schools would not have known about the police record or juvenile justice record of a particular student, or they wouldn’t know the background of a child who was moving from another school district.


“That has happened many times more than I’d like to count,” said Karen Schulte, director of student services for the Janesville School District.


Part of the problem is a set of laws that tells officials they have to be very selective in sharing sensitive information about a client or student.


Often, officials were so worried about laws protecting students’ privacy that they erred on the side of caution and said nothing, Reynolds said.


Schulte said the most important thing from the schools’ standpoint is that principals and school-assigned police officers get a heads up that a troubled student is entering the student body.


Chris Wesling, Schulte’s counterpart in Beloit, said getting the information quickly helps a school channel its resources, such as an alternative program, to help the student.


If the information comes too slowly, the student might commit another offense before authorities even know he had a problem, Schulte said.


“This is not, nor should never be viewed, as a witch hunt,” Reynolds said, adding that students are not singled out for persecution.


Rather, officials pool their resources to learn about and help youths who are experiencing mental turmoil or other problems that could lead to violence, Reynolds said.


The interagency arrangement works well in Rock County, but Reynolds said he doesn’t know of any other parts of Wisconsin with a similar agreement, although officials in other counties have gone through the federal training.


Given the concern about college campuses in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, what about Beloit College, Blackhawk Tech or UW-Rock County?


The group is not there yet, but “the day certainly could come, absolutely,” Reynolds said.



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