Ohio had nearly 100 school bomb threats last year — second-most in the nation — and one researcher called this region the epicenter of the problem, as Warren County alone had 23 students prosecuted for threats or weapons at school.
In the face of tragic incidents and smaller everyday risks, local schools are trying everything in their arsenals this year — sometimes literally — to improve safety on their campuses.
Dayton Public Schools is adding more fencing, cameras and radios. Sugarcreek is expanding safety training. Springboro had the county prosecutor warn students about legal consequences to their actions. And, most dramatically, Mad River announced a plan to give trained school staff access to guns next year.
“Student safety remains a top priority for our district, with the (armed) response team being the additional layer that we felt was a specific need,” Mad River Superintendent Chad Wyen said. “Our students, staff and families can be assured that when they step in one of Mad River’s eight buildings, they are protected and safe.”
But school safety experts say there is no surefire way to guarantee safety — schools are not ironclad fortresses, and teenagers can be unpredictable. That leaves schools with the dilemma of prioritizing multiple types of safety issues on a limited budget.
“You still have the school fights, you still have the bullying and you probably do have more assaults in the schools than school threats that result in an evacuation, although those (assault) numbers are down,” said Warren County Prosecutor David Fornshell. “There’s always room for improvement, but you’re never going to eliminate those.”
Local schools are caught in a catch-22 where fake bomb and shooting threats are repeatedly causing evacuations that disrupt classes, but there’s just enough potential for real danger that the risks can’t be ignored.
Analysts say these incidents are underreported, but one study from the Educator’s School Safety Network logged 1,267 U.S. school bomb threats in 2015-16, with four explosive devices found, or 1 in every 317 threats.
ESSN had Ohio ranked second-highest in the nation with 96 bomb threats in 2015-16, and researcher Amy Klinger said a clear majority of those came from southwest Ohio.
Fornshell said in Warren County alone, 23 students faced charges last school year for making a school threat or bringing a weapon to school, stemming from 17 total incidents.
Several of those date to a slew of threats that disrupted Lebanon and Springboro schools last spring. Charges have included inducing panic and making false alarms, with only three cases still pending. The rest resulted in convictions.
While the national numbers show most of the threats were hoaxes, Fornshell cautioned that’s not always the case, saying schools and law enforcement need to remain vigilant.
“Of the school threats we had, there were a handful that were, in my opinion, good pickups — students who were capable and in my opinion willing to carry out an act of violence,” Fornshell said. “You don’t want to disrupt the school day, (but) you never know which one of those threats is real.
“As an organization that’s responsible for the safety of thousands of children, you’re always going to err on the side of safety of those children.”
Fornshell said evacuating is the right move if there’s any uncertainty, but he acknowledged some threats can quickly be confirmed as hoaxes. Oakwood school treasurer Kevin Philo says his district always puts safety first, but will very quickly evaluate a threat with input from Oakwood Public Safety to determine if it is credible before evacuating.
Schools are careful not to reveal things about their safety plans that could compromise a response. Centerville Superintendent Tom Henderson said his district would “evaluate each situation individually … but we have protocols in place that I don’t know that I want to get into.”
Debate over guns
Mad River Schools plans to create armed response teams for the 2017-18 school year, training select teachers and staff how to respond to a potential school shooter and giving them access to loaded guns that will be locked inside hidden safes in each school.
Wyen said the community response has been “overwhelmingly positive.” He plans to talk to staff in each school to identify potential team members, who must obtain a concealed-carry license, complete a 26-hour program from the Buckeye Firearms Foundation and have ongoing training with Riverside Police.
Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International school safety consultants, said arming school staff is common in some Asian and African nations, “but it’s not something we typically recommend here … because police here are faster and better trained.”
Dorn said he spent 10 years carrying a gun as a school police chief and warned that training on judgmental use of force is complicated. He said armed teachers may be confident in how they’d respond to a stereotypical active shooter situation, but a more likely issue might be making a split-second decision on how to deal with a drunk parent holding a knife or a screwdriver.
“We’re not very big on the idea of a classroom teacher having to decide whether to leave a group of kids and go (with a response team),” Dorn said. “If they’re going to arm staff, one thing the NRA recommends … is that only former military, law enforcement and emergency services personnel be picked.”
Mad River officials said they were inspired to act by the Middletown Madison shooting, in which four students were injured in February. Dorn cautioned that the United States is “absolutely obsessed with active shooter events,” even though Safe Havens calls them “low-probability events.”
Dorn said under the Department of Homeland Security’s strict definition of an “active shooter,” only 62 school deaths from 1998 through 2012 fit that category, compared with 525 transportation/vehicle/pedestrian school deaths. Even adding fights, gang violence and all other homicides to the active shooter total, they would make up only 42 percent of the 1,377 school fatalities in that span.
Dorn said regardless of the threat, good training with regular drills is a key to success, saying it saved lives in a 2013 Colorado school shooting.
Tipp City Schools Superintendent Gretta Kumpf said training and close cooperation is part of her district’s approach.
“This year we will continue to have school resource officers in our buildings and hold unannounced emergency drills that mimic potential real-life scenarios,” she said.
Dorn and Ken Trump of National School Safety and Security Services both emphasize the need to prepare for a variety of situations. Local schools are taking that idea seriously:
Centerville: Henderson said his district contracted with Navigate Prepared, which took 360-degree pictures of every classroom, hallway, foyer and closet in each school. First-responders now have access to those images from their vehicles or computers in case of a fire, attack or any other incident.
“I’m pretty excited about it from a communication standpoint,” Henderson said. “Say it’s Centerville High School West Unit room 116. They can immediately pull up that room and see what windows there are, where the door is, where the nearest exit is, they can see the hallway, can see the physical layout of the room — is it a science lab or does it have a storage area. Our first-responders were really excited about it.”
Dayton: Dayton Public Schools staff have recommended a $200,000 investment to add fencing at nine schools, including World of Wonder, where a second-grade girl was stabbed on an unfenced playground in May.
Spokeswoman Jill Moberley said that move and a purchase of 35 more security cameras for use at multiple schools are awaiting school board action. The district already added 50 radios to give nurses, bus staff and playground staff immediate communication with the school office.
Moberley said a big issue is long-range planning to continue to replace older equipment.
Sugarcreek: Most districts train administrators and teachers, but they can have a safety gap if substitutes, who often bounce from building to building on an irregular basis, don’t know specific security plans.
Sugarcreek business manager Jeff Lewis said this year his district is expanding ALICE training (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) to substitutes and support staff who may not be full time.
Kettering: The school district will pay to add a third School Resource Officer, joining two others that have long been funded by the city. Business Services Director Ken Lackey said Kettering will have an officer full-time at the high school, with each of the other two covering one middle school and its feeder elementaries.
“ Having an officer in the buildings that the students get to know and trust makes a safer environment for everyone,” Lackey said.
New technology: Centerville and Oakwood are among the districts that have looked into a film-like product that is applied to windows, making them more shatterproof if someone tries to shoot or force their way through.
“We’ve looked at that but haven’t made a decision yet,” Henderson said. “We’re constantly researching those kinds of things.”
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