'Communities of One' aims to create safer schools, perfect planning

PLATTSBURGH - Educators, health and human service providers and members of local law enforcement are teaming up to make schools safer.

Those behind the local implementation of the national Safe Schools/Healthy Students program, known as Communities of One, gathered together for a press conference April 23 at Plattsburgh International Airport.

Project administrator Wanda McQueen gave an overview of the program, which was described as "a federal initiative to reduce the risk of school violence and the use of alcohol, tobacco and other drugs while promoting strong mental health among students and their families. "

The program began on the national level in 1999, McQueen explained, in response to an increase in school violence. The press conference itself was held three days following the 10-year anniversary of the deadly Columbine High School shootings in Colorado, a point McQueen underscored as a need for early intervention in an effort to prevent similar violent acts.

"Focusing primarily on the elementary level, we are taking a preventative and proactive approach versus an approach of reaction and enforcement to problems that manifest on the middle and high school levels," said McQueen.

The Communities of One project has already begun to be implemented in five participating school districts in Clinton and Essex counties - AuSable Valley, Moriah, Northern Adirondack, Saranac and Ticonderoga central schools. The schools have begun providing key services through partnerships with various community organizations, including Behavioral Health Services North, Champlain Valley Family Center, Childcare Coordinating Council of the North Country, Clinton County Community Services Board, Eastern Adirondack Health Care Network, Essex County Mental Health Agency, Substance Abuse Prevention Team and the sheriff's and probation department among the two counties.

The partnership consists of a five-element approach to provide the services, explained McQueen. The first element focuses on school violence prevention by providing such services as personal safety and character education workshops. The second element consists of drug use prevention and includes making a drug use prevention educator available one day a week to the participating schools. The third element deals with social and emotional support for students through after-school programs like "Families and Schools Together" and "Adventure-Based Learning."

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