Students will head back to school by the thousands this week, with both kids and educators still processing the horrific Aug. 4 mass shooting in the Oregon District. TY GREENLEES / STAFF
Photo: Ty Greenlees
Photo: Ty Greenlees

Schools on watch as classes begin in wake of tragedy

Dozens of local schools reopen this week, days after a horrific Dayton attack that killed nine people, forcing schools to turn extra attention to both security and student wellness.

Richard Wright, Dayton Public Schools’ executive director of safety and security, said some school staff questioned the wisdom of going through with last Monday’s planned “ALICE” safety training in the immediate wake of the shooting.

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“These are critical incidents. You can’t figure out when, you can’t always figure out why, but unfortunately, they happen,” Wright said. “So the question is, how do we become better prepared?”

Dayton, Trotwood and several charter schools have their first day of classes today. A majority of the largest suburban districts start Wednesday, including Kettering, Centerville, Beavercreek, Northmont and others.

“We’re following the course of action we already had, with just a little more emphasis on making sure that safety is a priority,” said Dayton Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli, who added there is upcoming training on identifying signs of mental distress.

Kettering Superintendent Scott Inskeep sent a letter to families last week welcoming students back for the school year that starts Wednesday but also referencing the Oregon District tragedy and telling parents of the “total commitment” to making safety a top priority.

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The letter spells out Kettering’s addition of more school resource officers this year, plus installation of classroom door barricade devices. It urges everyone to use the district’s safety tip-line (643-4444, ext.7), and describes continuing staff and student training on the ALICE model (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) in case of an intruder.

“I want to remind everyone who is a part of the Kettering City Schools community that you are also an extremely important part of our safety and security efforts,” Inskeep wrote. “If you see or hear something that is a safety concern, no matter how big or small, please report it.”

School safety efforts largely fall into four categories: investments to secure and fortify school buildings, drills and training on how to react to threats, monitoring of social media (local districts use Social Sentinel) and proactive efforts to address student behavior and mental health issues.

Erich Merkle, past president of the Ohio School Psychologists Association, said on the last category, Ohio has put good steps in place by mandating Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) in schools and adopting social-emotional learning standards at the state level. He said individual schools’ implementation of those programs varies.

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“It becomes an issue of resource allocation and personnel deployment” Merkle said. “I think there is a nearly universal appreciation for these types of (programs). … But there are some forward-leaning districts and some that are still getting caught up.”

Merkle said schools should look at their student population as a pyramid, with about 85 percent of students forming the base that understands and uses the routine PBIS instruction on relationships, conflict management and decision-making.

Above that, a tier of about 10 percent that have certain risk factors and vulnerabilities and should be targeted for small group interventions, friendship groups and activities on how to better connect with peers and their community.

Merkle called remaining 5 percent the intensive tier — students who have risk of suicide or harming others or other serious risk factors. He said schools should be assessing those students and making triage decisions of how to link them with in-school or community mental health supports.

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“The important part is that schools are training their personnel when it comes to issues of risk assessment, suicide or threat assessment, that they have dedicated safety plans in place (so that all staff) know what to do when situations come up,” Merkle said.

Lebanon schools Superintendent Todd Yohey explained in a letter to parents that at least one full-time mental health therapist will be in every school building “every day, all day working with students.” He said a “resiliency survey” helps to identify students who may be having thoughts of self-harm or hurting others.

Kettering has also expanded its mental health contract, with South Community. Lebanon and Kettering have each trained teachers and others on these issues. Kettering had 70 staffers do the full eight-hour Youth Mental Health First Aid class, with another 317 taking the shorter introductory training.

Schools are still making building and technology upgrades as well. Wright said Dayton’s new security cameras are dramatically higher quality and can be pulled up quickly by security staff on their phones. The district now gets alerts if locked doors are opened. And DPS is the rare district locally that uses metal detectors.

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But Wright said all that technology is only as good as the people operating it, so his focus is on training people.

Ken Lackey, Kettering schools director of business services, also said people are the key, but in a different way.

“Every time these (attacks) happen, it turns out there were all kinds of red flags out there (but) sometimes nobody speaks up about those red flags,” Lackey said. “Absolutely the No. 1 way we’re going to find out about a lot of these situations is from kids telling an adult what they know.”

So schools are trying to build trust between students and staff. Mad River Schools have implemented a host of programs aimed at helping students deal with emotional and societal problems. Superintendent Chad Wyen has repeatedly said that he wants each school employee to try to be “that one caring adult” to whom students feel they can turn when they’re in need.

Merkle said school staff, while being alert, should be careful not to profile certain types of students as likely to explode.

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“In the behavioral sciences, we’re still fairly lousy when it comes to predicting the behavior of others,” he said.

Lolli said the community is on edge right now, but while schools work to keep the majority of students safe, they also have to keep working with students whom others may see as a potential threat.

“We’re trying to offer those supports … so students can feel safe, and parents can be assured that we are taking care of our students’ safety and our staff’s safety,” Lolli said. “But also making sure if we see a child who might be suffering in some way, that we’re providing supports, either by connecting them with agencies that can help, or asking the agency already in building to connect.”

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