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Texas Firm Creating Bank of School Safety Information


Feeling safe at school from potential violence and health hazards is critical to effective learning and teaching, and International Horizons Unlimited is trying to learn through an Internet survey what educators and the public know about school safety issues. Company chief executive officer Dr. Saul B.Wilen talked with Education World about what he hopes to learn from the information and why it is valuable. Included: Information about minimizing health hazards in schools.

Dr. Saul B. Wilen is the chief executive officer of International Horizons Unlimited (IHU), a national educational and resources consortium based in San Antonio, Texas. IHU developed a School Safety Report Card, available on the Internet, as a public service. Wilen's background is in education and medicine. He serves on the Texas Department of Health task force on indoor air quality standards and speaks and writes about bio-environmental issues, environmental hazards, school violence prevention, and school health and safety.

Education World: What is the School Safety Report Card project? How will you use the data you collect?

Dr. Saul Wilen: The School Safety Report Card is a national awareness project presented in an online self-test survey format from March 2001 to March 2002. The Report Card has two major purposes: to make each individual taking the survey aware of what he or she knows and does not know about school safety issues and to develop a database for use by school safety planners. The goal is to get 1 million Americans -- teachers, students, parents, administrators, taxpayers, law enforcement members, media, business people, community residents (collectively known as stakeholders) -- to participate. We are well on our way to reaching this goal. The results will be distributed, on federal, state, and local levels, to school districts, communities, government agencies, and professional organizations dealing with schools and education, as well as to the public and the media.

EW: How does the School Safety Report Card project tie in with other issues, such as the environmental conditions in schools?

Wilen: School safety is an all-encompassing concept that includes violence-related issues, security issues, environmental issues, and physical plant (facilities) issues. The School Safety Report Card deals primarily with violence-related and security-related safety. Because we know, however, that students cannot learn effectively and teachers cannot teach effectively if they do not feel safe, then educational effectiveness is directly connected to feeling and being safe at school. A parallel set of issues includes the safety of the facilities and of the environment in which the educational process proceeds. Those factors also affect educational effectiveness. Environmental issues usually come to light when a facility problem and/or defect, illnesses manifesting symptoms with environmental exposure patterns, or persistent clusters of affected individuals functioning in the same location (school, classroom, library, cafeteria) are discovered.

EW: Why has it taken so long for people to study such health hazards as air quality, mold, and other toxins in schools?

Wilen: Health hazards related to public buildings, including schools, have existed for many years -- even decades. The symptoms are for the most part non-specific and easily confused with other self-limited acute illnesses such as upper respiratory viral infections, or with chronic problems, such as sinusitis, rhinitis, and bronchitis. The defined relationships of these illnesses to prolonged health hazards exposure is a relatively recent development. Confirmatory testing now is being developed and remediation approaches are available. The spectrum of hazardous agents includes bacteria, molds/fungi, radon/radiation, gaseous substances, particulates (asbestos, lead), and volatile organic compounds (formaldehyde.)

Even in the face of that progress, dealing with health hazard issues has been difficult, due to the absence of mandatory standards and the high cost of remediation. The ability to apply prevention is possible only with awareness of the problems. The application of prevention principles to facility construction, maintenance, and timely repair is a major solution for significantly controlling school health hazard problems now and in the future. Some states and local jurisdictions have developed voluntary guidelines for schools. This is a beginning; unfortunately, these voluntary guidelines have only limited impact.

EW: How do schools benefit from International Horizons' services?

Wilen: Awareness of health and safety issues is necessary so questions can be framed, dialogue can be initiated, community-school partnerships can be established, and prevention approaches can be instituted. International Horizons Unlimited, as an educational resource and consulting firm, subscribes to the principle that the education of stakeholders results in the ability to prevent [problems]. This occurs through developing an active role, becoming motivated to participate in developing solutions, being aware of the early signs of at-risk behaviors, and supporting early, pro-active intervention. Prevention over time is the most cost-effective approach.

International Horizons offers consulting, planning services, programs, and systems to support schools in the areas of violence prevention, health and safety hazards including environmental issues, and educational accountability.

EW: What can school administrators do to promote a healthful and safe school environment?

Wilen: The immediate need is to identify school facility health hazards and permanently remediate them. That will render school facility environments safe. Then, by applying monitoring, maintenance, and timely repair, problems can be eliminated or at least minimized. Attempts by administrators to become familiar with existing voluntary guidelines and to implement them would be a strong beginning. In the realm of school violence prevention and safety, education at all levels is a major element. The development of plans and teams to react and manage crises is important, but without the inclusion of a prevention focus, we forever doom the process to be reactive. Existing school violence preparedness plans lack emphasis on prevention and on partnering with communities and other resources to prevent [incidents]. School administrators need to re-evaluate their efforts and incorporate pro-active prevention into their planning.

This e-interview with Dr. Saul Wilen is part of the Education World weekly Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.