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Constance Alexander: Everyone can help STOP! bullying by taking school safety pledge

“How many of you have always wanted to be a teacher?” The audience does not respond. It is first thing Monday morning, after all, and they are not sure how to react to Karen McCuiston, director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety.

Karen McCuiston

Karen McCuiston

Despite the lack of reaction, McCuiston is not cowed.

She steps closer to the first row of seats in the auditorium and repeats her question, adding, “Come on!” When a few timid hands finally are raised, Karen is gleeful. “I love when I see that light go on,” she roars.

The first year students in the Murray State University College of Education shift in their seats. Eyes that moments ago had struggled against sleep, were suddenly opened wide. Now that she has their attention, her voice fades to a whisper. The kids lean forward to catch every word.

“If you continue on the path that you’re on, you’ll have the best job in the world.” She pauses and searches the young faces before her. “You know what teachers do? They shape the next generation. They change the culture.”

Now grinning triumphantly, with her hands on hips as if someone might be fixing to contradict her, Karen wails, “Whoa, baby! You may be the one who helps cure world peace. You might teach the child who does that. You light their fire!”

Karen McCuiston is a force of nature. As a presenter, she is a combination of Lucille Ball and Minnie Pearl, with the physicality of Carol Burnett thrown into the mix, but her purpose is not to entertain. She intends to make an impression on these future teachers, encouraging them to enter the profession for the right reasons, with their eyes opened.

“You’ll never get paid enough,” she announces matter-of-factly. “If your reasons to be a teacher are wrong, there’s the door. If you’re not here for the love of the children, there’s the door.” When no one takes the bait, she moves to the next part of her presentation.

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In August, 1997, McCuiston had taken a brand new job in McCracken County in far Western Kentucky. Her position at the board office entailed public relations and grant writing. By Thanksgiving, she still wasn’t sure there was a comfortable fit, but then coming back to work the day after the holiday break, everything changed.

She had not been at her desk very long that morning when word came in that there had been a shooting at nearby Heath High School. A total of eight students had been shot by another student, a freshman, and three girls died. “This was the change of everything,” Karen said.

Remembering the day of tragedy, Dec. 1, Karen McCuiston recalled the onslaught of national media, the shattered lives of students and families. “Our lobby was a crime scene,” she explained, her voice still registering a hint of disbelief. “Every teacher she felt guilty.”

When Karen McCuiston talks about bullying, she is serious. “It’s a gateway to violence,” she declares. “Bullying is the core. We have to respect one another.”

By now, her voice is louder. She whisks a tear from the corner of her eye. There is a collective breath of relief from her spellbound listeners.

The message is clear as she recites essential facts about bullying. Safety is part of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, and the need to ensure every aspect of student safety is a sacred responsibility of teachers. Quoting Senate Bill 8 and House Bill 354, Karen McCuiston explained that every school is required to have an emergency plan that includes identification of safe zones. Special drills are supposed to be implemented so that everyone knows the procedures.

This year’s School Safety Week is Oct. 20-26, and Karen McCuiston urges everyone to go online to take the pledge against bullying. STOP! Is the acronym for 2013, featuring the key words of Safety, Teamwork, Opportunity and Power.

Join with Karen McCuiston and thousands of people of all ages around the state who have already signed the pledge. Click here for more information.


Constance Alexander is a faculty scholar in the Teacher Quality Institute at Murray State University. She is also a freelance writer.

To read more from Constance Alexander, click here.

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