Experts: School safety needs to go beyond focus on shooters

Aug 12, 2018

Active shooters dominate talk about school safety in America, with many area schools adding fortifications or armed response plans. But security experts are encouraging schools to focus on smaller, day-to-day student issues as well, saying these are more common and are sometimes the root cause of the bigger tragedies.

“As a society we have gotten a tunnel vision focus on active shooters,” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. “There are many potential scenarios such as non-custodial parent concerns, bullying, and other threats that are lower-impact but higher probability of being faced by school administrators. School safety planning requires a balanced and comprehensive approach.”

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Public perceptions on school safety needs are obviously affected by horrific school shootings — the 17 dead in Parkland, Fla., in February, 10 dead in Santa Fe, Texas, in May — and even non-fatal cases nearby in West Liberty-Salem and Madison schools.

According to a recent Ball State University survey, 36 percent of Midwestern parents believe that in the next three years, their local high school is ‘highly likely’ to have a shooting, gun threat or armed student incident.

Emma Kane, Fairmont High School’s student body president, said Fairmont doesn’t have a lot of fights or other issues, so when she thinks of school security, it’s mainly about potential shootings.

“It’s terrible to say, but in all of my classes, at least once I’ve thought about … if there was a shooter in the building, could I jump out a window here or where would I go?” Kane said. “That’s not great to think about, but that’s the reality we live in today.”

The roughly 60 high schools in the core Dayton region have not had a school shooting, other than a suicide, in recent decades. But those schools do deal with fights, bullying and depressed, alienated kids.

Fairmont High School students who intend to drive their personal vehicles to school assembled on Thursday morning to pay for their parking passes for the school parking lot.

Different approaches

In the first years after the 2012 Newtown, Conn., shooting, schools across the nation beefed up physical security with more locked doors, camera systems and buzz-in entrance “vestibules.”

Those changes are still filtering out to some schools in the past year, as Oakwood and West Carrollton just installed secure entrance systems, the Warren County Career Center added a driver’s license scan/background check system, and New Lebanon recently bought door barricades for lockdown situations.

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But in the past two years, state education officials have pushed schools to also focus on creating day-to-day positive school climate, by supporting at-risk students, providing mental health services and using schoolwide messaging.

“Threat assessment is a reactive process” in handling school safety issues, said Erich Merkle, past president of the Ohio School Psychologists Association. “The best approach is employing positive behavior intervention supports (PBIS) to shift school culture … as the proactive strategy.”

Most common threats

The Dayton area has been lucky to avoid school shootings, but principals, school resource officers and counselors have plenty to keep them busy on the school safety front.

Lebanon Superintendent Todd Yohey said among the most common incidents are upset parents making threats against school personnel. Kettering spokeswoman Kari Basson cited the need to quickly secure buildings and get students inside if there is a critical police issue in a school neighborhood. Fairborn spokeswoman Pam Gayheart said schools need to stay on top of who is allowed to pick up students.

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“With custody and restraining order issues, our biggest safety concern is that our documentation is up to date so that students are released to the appropriate people,” Gayheart said.

Piqua Superintendent Dwayne Thompson said social media has “a significant impact” on safety situations, as issues that arise outside of school hours can blow up when students come together the next day, sometimes based on rumors and inaccurate information.

Montgomery and Warren county schools are among those who have contracted with Social Sentinel, a service that scans public posts for “threat indicators” and “language of harm” tied to specific communities, then delivers quick updates to school officials.

Smaller issues flare up

Merkle encourages students and school staff to reach out to students who are disconnected from the school society, who go through major life trauma, or are having academic and behavioral problems. While cautioning against overly broad profiles, Merkle said several student shooters have had those experiences.

Nikolas Cruz, who confessed to the Parkland shooting, had made previous threats, been expelled, and had both of his adopted parents die. A Connecticut state report said Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza suffered from depression and other mental health problems and had demonstrated a preoccupation with violence before the massacre.

Mad River schools are among those trying a variety of approaches to safety. The district’s armed response team, which has access to firearms to combat a violent intruder, has received most of the attention.

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But Superintendent Chad Wyen said Mad River is also partnering this year with Montgomery County’s Alcohol, Drug Addiction & Mental Health Services board (ADAMHS) on a violence-prevention program called Second Step that helps students in grades 4, 6 and 8 “learn, practice, and apply skills for self-regulation and social-emotional competence.” Students in grades 7-12, with parent permission, will have access to early intervention for drug, alcohol, anxiety and depression issues through Samaritan Behavioral Health.

Whether on day-to-day issues, or the threat of an attack, schools work to “continually train staff and students on a variety of situations,” Tecumseh Superintendent Paula Crew said.

“Although the threat of having an active shooter in the building is always a concern, we have taken many measures to help reduce the potential,” Crew said. “Our biggest source of support and information continues to come from students and people within the community.”

Student concerns

Some students said they worry more about shootings, others think more about bullying.

Sophomore Becca Kurtz said things like bullying do build up at Fairmont.

“But I feel like there’s a point where we won’t let it extend to the next level where (something big) could happen,” she said.

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Kierre Dewberry, a senior at Dayton’s Thurgood Marshall High School, said student views on school safety are colored by whether their neighborhood experience is safe to begin with. He questioned whether Dayton schools really needs its metal detectors, and said the focus should be on mental health, where students can help each other simply by being a friend.

Dewberry’s classmate Ayyoub Muhammed said he’d rather be safe than sorry with the metal detectors. He said Thurgood did a full-day program on safety issues last year, but it comes down how students treat each other.

“I think it all starts with bullying, and bullying leads up to bigger things like school shooting,” Muhammed said.