School safety panel agrees on counselors, splits on armed officers

Panelists at a school safety forum Monday largely agreed about the need for more counseling and mental health services for at-risk students, but disagreed about the value of armed police in schools.

The Schools, Guns, and Safety Town Hall was organized by WHIO and the Dayton Daily News and hosted by Kettering’s Van Buren Middle School. The idea was to ask a broad panel — representing teachers, students, community activists, law enforcement, legislators and school administrators — what ideas should be prioritized to make schools more safe.

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“Unfortunately, every six months or so we start a conversation, and it’s an active, vibrant conversation for several weeks, and then suddenly, it seems to go away,” state Sen. Peggy Lehner said. “There is nobody in this room, or this community or this state who ever wants to see another school shooting. And yet, the solutions seem to be so elusive.”

Monday’s panel had relatively little discussion of metal detectors, camera systems and other technology. The focus was more on people — either adding muscle to counseling staffs and school resource officers, or giving better training to the people who are already there.

Kettering schools Superintendent Scott Inskeep and Kettering police chief Chip Protsman said their partnership on three armed resource officers in schools is valuable on basic security, but also for relationship-building with students and staff, to identify emerging problems and nip them in the bud. Lehner said the state should be willing to help schools pay for resource officers.

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But Hashim Jabar, executive director of Racial Justice Now, warned that one size doesn’t fit all on that issue. He argued that given strain between police and black residents, armed police are not the answer in Dayton schools.

“We want to be able to have social workers and restorative justice. We want to be able to take those signs that the student is giving us, and not have to get to the point where we have active shooter drills,” Jabar said. “We want to address the mental, the social/emotional needs of the children. … We want to have counselors, not cops.”

Jerry Ellender, treasurer of Mad River Schools, agreed that one size doesn’t fit all. His district is one of a small but growing number that have trained a small number of school staff to serve as an armed response team in the event of an attack.

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Ellender said that might not work for another district, but added that even he was surprised how fully supportive the Mad River community was of the move. He added that Mad River hired a social worker to head off problems early, rather than a resource officer to do enforcement.

Joni Watson, a teacher at Horace Mann school in Dayton, said she believes teachers need to be focused primarily on students and teaching, rather than security.

“We need money for mental health services. That’s the bottom line,” Watson said. “Every time there’s a school shooting, we hear that the child was isolated, the child felt bullied, or he or she didn’t belong.”

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Montgomery County Sheriff Phil Plummer agreed with Watson, saying we have “dropped the ball on mental health in this entire community.”

Charlie Ross, a junior at Oakwood High School, said the talk of counselors, mental health professionals and training teachers was good, but it overlooked a huge resource in schools — the students.

“Tell (students) that it’s OK to identify these things to a guidance counselor or social worker so this person can receive help before it’s too late, before they get these punitive measures that only make them more extreme and more hateful,” Ross said. “Who better understands the outside fringe kids than the student body?”

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Several panelists urged the general public to get more active on the issue of school safety, whether that was Ellender encouraging parents to talk to their school board, Watson encouraging activism among students, or Plummer urging parents to talk to their children about school safety.

Near the end, Jabar talked about the need for schools and families to teach not just reading and math, but character development, to address root causes of behavior and build good citizens, good relationships and good community. Lehner agreed.

“Kids model the behavior they see in their parents,” Lehner said. “As parents, ask yourself when was the last time you talked to the person who lives next door, on your right, your left, and across the street. That’s one of the most simple ways we can reflect for our kids that it’s important that they talk to the child on their right, their left, and the child with their head down on the desk in front of them.”

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