Guns and the Village: Reviewing safety in our schools
- Published: February 14, 2013
This is the third in our series “Guns and the Village.”
Click here to see all the articles in the series.
In the days and weeks following the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., several local parents found themselves having conversations with their children about what to do in the case of a shooting at their own school in Yellow Springs. Darla Buckenmyer recalled a conversation she had at Skateland with her daughter and several of her friends who attend McKinney Middle School.
“‘I’d play dead,’ one of them said, or ‘I would be a human shield for others,’” Buckenmyer recalled.
Lori Kuhn and her children were talking about the same thing over dinner one night.
“Shouldn’t you run?” asked her third grader, who attends Mills Lawn School. Kuhn suggested that the students should do what their teacher tells them.
“But what if the teacher is wrong, or dead?” the child asked.
Along with these new conversations, the rampage at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14 has caused school communities across the country to reassess the safety of their buildings and their ability to respond to violent threats and crises, especially those related to an active shooter. Statistically, schools are very safe places to be, with less than 1 percent of all juvenile homicides occurring at or on the way to school, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. However, the push to ensure safety has prompted a broad spectrum of response both around the state and in Yellow Springs.
In January several state departments jointly sponsored a series of training sessions to prepare school personnel to respond to an active shooter. And while hundreds of teachers and school staff across the state have signed up for free firearms training, two Ohio school districts have decided to allow staff members to carry concealed handguns at schools for added security.
In Yellow Springs, the school community is taking precaution to ensure that its own emergency response plans are current and meet the standards of the local community. Both parents and teachers have recommended small changes to the plan. And some also stressed the potential loss of freedom and openness the school could suffer from too much rigidity in the name of security. Some also acknowledged that just as the high-standard security measures at Sandy Hook were breached, there could be a limit to how much the school is able to do to prevent certain events from occurring.
“As a parent, I keep feeling that the big thing is balance between security and admitting that you can’t prevent some things from happening,” school board member Sylvia Ellison said. “There are ways to ruin a school in the name of making schools more safe. Kids are safer at school statistically than they are in their own homes. While we’re being very diligent about how to be more safe, let’s not forget that.”
School security laws, measures
Protections against gun violence at schools have been in place for some time. The federal Gun-Free School Zones Act of 1990 prohibits anyone from having a firearm in a school zone. However, according to an NBC News study last month, at least 18 states allow exceptions. Ohio, Kentucky, California, Connecticut and others, for example, allow local school officials to authorize an exception to the gun ban on school property. A few states have a lesser version of the gun ban on school property, which in Alabama prohibits only carriers with “intent to do bodily harm.” In Rhode Island anyone with a state concealed weapons permit may carry on school grounds, and in Wyoming guns can be brought into schools as long as they are visible.
For students, the law is more clear. The federal Gun-Free Schools Act of 1965 requires all public schools to expel for at least one year any student in possession of a firearm at school. A small and shrinking percentage of students, about 5 in every 100,000 students, or 2,500, each year fail to comply with the law, according to the U.S. Department of Education. And nationwide, the number of violent school deaths each year has remained at a low but steady average of 16 student homicides per year over the past seven years, about two-thirds of which are caused by firearms, according to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES).
School districts employ a variety of precautionary measures to ensure the health and safety of their students. According to the NCES Statistics, about 90 percent of all schools in the nation control access to their school buildings, by locking outside doors, for instance. Fewer than half control access to their school grounds, and even fewer, 27 percent, utilize daily police security. Just 8 percent have metal detectors in place.
Still, since the recent school shootings, some new ideas about how to keep schools even safer have cropped up.
In January the Ohio Peace Officer Training Academy, with the Ohio Department of Education and the Ohio Attorney General’s office, began offering a series of training sessions for educators on how to respond to situations involving a gunman in the school. And others have advocated arming school personnel to defend the school against a potential outside threat. In mid-January, Montpelier Exempted School District in the rural northwest corner of Ohio decided to allow school staff to carry concealed handguns in its four schools. Joe Rugola, director of the Ohio Association of Public School Employees, opposed the idea for liability reasons alone, but other districts are considering doing the same. On Jan. 18 the Columbus Dispatch reported that the Orville City School District south of Cleveland planned to allow one of its science teachers, who is also a police officer in nearby Lawrence Township, to carry a firearm at school. The move saved the school district from having to hire security personnel, according to the district’s superintendent Jon Ritchie.
Other districts could do the same. When Buckeye Firearms Association announced it would begin free firearms training for teachers and school staff in the spring, over 600 teachers, administrators and guidance counselors from urban, suburban and rural areas signed up, according to a release by Buckeye Firearms.
Instead of arming their own staff, many schools pay trained police to provide extra security in their districts. Both nationally and in Ohio, 65–70 percent of school districts utilize “school resource officers,” often jointly paid by a local police department and school district to patrol the schools and offer crime prevention and safety events. Greene County has seven school resource officers serving schools in this area, according to Ohio School Resource Officers Director Kari Parsons.
Village school safety in YS
Perhaps due to their small size and the nature of the community, Yellow Springs schools have not employed many of the stricter security measures, and have so far not had much cause to deal with firearms at school or injuries caused by firearms. The local district does not allow anyone to carry firearms on school grounds, nor has the community voiced any need to consider changing that policy, Superintendent Mario Basora said in a recent interview. The district does not employ a school resource officer, but when necessary, works with local police, who are very close by and sensitive about working with families to avoid criminalizing youth whenever possible, according to Yellow Springs High School Guidance Counselor Dave Smith.
But the tragedy at Sandy Hook school has shaken many in the local school community, prompting a public review of their current security measures in late January. A group of about 25 parents, teachers, school administrators and local emergency responders met to discuss the district’s emergency preparedness plan, which is updated every two years and includes contingencies for all manner of natural disasters and criminal threats. The procedures for each situation are drilled regularly at school with students. Though school officials acknowledged that the security of the plan depended on its remaining confidential (so they can’t be breached by those wishing to do harm), they still wanted public input.
Several parents considered whether the normal school security measures of keeping doors closed and locked and requiring visitors to sign in at the front office were sufficient. One parent suggested the use of a buzzer and security camera at the front door to allow only authorized people inside the school. Currently only the high school utilizes security cameras, and neither school building has a vestibule or buzzer to control exactly who enters.
“If it keeps the kids alive, heck yeah, I’m for it!” parent Darla Buckenmyer said.
Others said the school is a place where family members, volunteers and community members come regularly to support the education of local youth, and that making it more difficult to enter the buildings could create antagonistic feelings or discourage school-community partnerships.
“We could certainly be more secure, but when you do that, you risk losing the values of friendliness and openness,” Basora said.
Even Sandy Hook, prior to the shooting, had recently installed a new security system at its four elementary schools that included locking exterior doors every day at 9:30 a.m. and required all visitors entering after that time to be buzzed in with the use of a visual monitoring system by office staff.
“Nothing is perfect — nothing is going to eliminate all threats,” said Colin Altman, Miami Township Fire-Rescue chief.
According to parent and former Yellow Springs Police Chief John Grote, who has helped to formulate other public districts’ safety plans, the local district’s plan is “a really good system and program… Mills Lawn especially has done an amazing job and put a lot of thought into a multi-faceted plan that deals with quite a few scenarios and situations.”
Several teachers and students interviewed recently for this article said they had faith in their security measures and that changing them wouldn’t necessarily provide greater safety. The plans in place are well-thought out, teacher Shawn Jackson said, adding that “teachers always want to protect their kids… they kind of feel like your kids and you want to make sure they’re safe.” But should the district take further steps, such as hiring armed guards or arming staff? Jackson finds that any measure “might make you feel safe, but you’re also curtailing your sense of freedom…the biggest challenge is to find that balance of security and also having an open society.”
Arming teachers is not at all what’s needed in the schools, according to teacher Aurelia Blake, a retired Air Force officer.
“If we lived in a war zone then all adults should be armed. We are not in a war zone. These are not dystopian times. The best skills needed are already available. Observation and sensitivity,” she said, referring to teacher’s ability to identify students who may be bullied, disconnected or depressed and at risk of posing a threat. Teachers can help those youth get the support they need.
“Communities can’t pass levies to keep their teaching staffs teaching — where would the money come from for battle pay, firearm training, firearm acquisition, maintenance and storage and the increased liability insurance for the teachers they have?” Blake said. “As teachers, our jobs are to care for the children, and that is where the real day-to-day problem solving needs to focus first.”
Several students agreed that they already feel quite safe in the local schools and see no need to ramp up security measures. YSHS students Roland Newsome and Bryce White have never seen or heard of anyone bringing guns to school, and they only once heard of the school searching someone’s locker for an alleged knife. Occasionally someone will accidentally bring a knife to school with no intent to threaten anyone, but none of the students have been threatened by it, they said.
The students also felt that arming teachers or hiring security guards was a “sketchy” idea that might intimidate students and actually make them feel less safe, White said.
“The more guns you bring into a situation, the more dangerous it’s going to be, no matter who has them,” YSHS student Liam Weigand said.
“And it still wouldn’t make me feel any safer,” White said.
The students were aware that what happened in Newtown could happen in Yellow Springs as well. They said they knew what to do in a lockdown situation, and some also said they might be tempted to make decisions of their own, like running away from the school. But in the end, Newsome said, there might not be anything the school can do about the rare shooting incident.
“Our school is very safe,” he said. “I really don’t think you can do anything about that [shooter]. It just happens.”
Other local schools
The Antioch School community sat up after the Newtown event to take a closer look at their own school security plan, which they found in need of an update. While the fire and tornado safety plans have been solidly in place, the school community is just now discussing what’s needed to be better prepared for a broader range of emergencies, including environmental as well as natural disasters, according to Antioch School parent John Grote.
As police chief, Grote had strongly recommended that the Antioch School work with local and county emergency response agencies to improve its safety plans. The physical design of the building is quite open and includes a lot of glass, which makes safety and security needs unique, Grote said. And the private school’s natural inclusion of parents and the wider community for activities from tutoring to transportation for field trips impacts emergency planning as well. The school’s board is currently meeting to draft new measures to address additional needs.
“As a school community, we are made up of students, teachers, parents, and staff, who all take each other’s safety very seriously. Parents share in providing transportation to field trips, and students themselves play a major role in keeping each other safe at school, whether it’s participating in a fire drill or recovering from a bruised knee,” Antioch School Board President Chad Stiles wrote in a recent email. “This mutual concern we have for each other is, I think, our greatest strength as we move forward in preparing for a worst-case scenario.”
But Stiles was also cognizant of the potential loss of openness in going too far with security.
“I think that balance is a crucial part of our discussion: keeping children absolutely safe versus maintaining The Antioch School’s open and trusting environment,” he wrote. “We cherish visits from parents, guests, and the larger community. Students excel at welcoming (and querying) visitors. As we look to strengthening our emergency preparations, we want to be sure not to lose the much loved qualities that make the school unique.”
The Greene County Learning Center, located in Yellow Springs, is also currently reviewing its emergency response plans. According to Learning Center Superintendent Mike Grey, a committee of Greene County law enforcement and crisis responders is formulating a best practice safety management plan to recommend to public institutions in the region. The Learning Center expects to evaluate its own plan once the recommendations are public.
Though he has only been with the Greene County school since September, Grey has been superintendent of Darke County Learning Center for over a decade and has never dealt with a firearm security threat from inside or outside the schools. The local school also does not employ a school resource officer, and is not currently considering doing so.
The option has not arisen in talks with the school board, Grey said, but ultimately “it would come down to whether the school district had the money to do it.”
Mental health focus
Playing a role in keeping the schools safe is a strong system of mental health treatment at both YSHS and the Learning Center, according to staff at both schools. Teachers and counselors at the high school understand that any student at any time can be affected by the stress of life events, both one time and ongoing. Students struggle with “little stuff” like friendships to “bigger stuff” like grief, loss, anxiety and depression, and the school uses resources to identify the need and support students at the appropriate level, school counselor Dave Smith said.
While being in a small school within a small community can sometimes be suffocating, it also means more personalized attention and interconnectedness between staff and students and between the students themselves, which can facilitate identifying those who need emotional support, he said.
“We’ve got secretaries, administrators, counselors, teachers, and that’s a lot of eyes watching out for you throughout your school life,” he said.
Sometimes the support is easily within the school’s ability to address, but if not, the staff refers to private counselors in the village, as well as mental health services such as Family Solutions in Xenia or Plum Street Counseling in Springfield. And in the case of a more urgent crisis, the school also refers to Kettering Behavioral Center or a local hospital for care. Through a combination of luck, caring and natural access to resources, Smith in his 18 years at YSHS has been very satisfied with the help students have received.
“In a huge school maybe no one knows you’re doing bad because no one knows your name, but in a little school everybody may know your business, but they also tend to say when something isn’t right,” Smith said.
Of course the system isn’t perfect, and especially in larger districts within bigger communities, some children do fall through the cracks, according to Basora. Schools do their best to refer particular students to more intense services, but in his experience, the follow-up doesn’t always happen. Perhaps the county is too busy, or understaffed.
“If we want to get serious about solving this, we need to give teachers more say in which kids are struggling,” Basora said. “Instead of focusing on more weapons, we should focus on more mental health services, and more ability for teachers to refer kids who need to be evaluated.”
Smith has never felt a security threat in the Yellow Springs schools, and feels lucky to have a police department full of caring officers just down the road in case of the occasional emergency. He doesn’t know if the school needs to increase its security but acknowledges that doing so could be harmful.
“You can go all the way if you want to by locking the doors, getting security cameras and bullet proof glass… but at many prices,” he said. “Still, certainly people have different opinions on what security needs to look like here, and I don’t know what the right answer is.”
*YSHS student Liam Weigand is the writer’s stepson.