Ohio taxpayers are spending millions of dollars on security upgrades, security officers, mental health counselors, staff training and more to protect 1.7 million students and 134,000 educators across the state.
An investigation by the Dayton Daily News into efforts to keep students safe - in the wake of national and local school shooting incidents - found districts are adopting a wide array of tactics in attempts to fortify school buildings. But public scrutiny of those policies and whether they are working is made difficult by state laws that shield public disclosure of districts’ security plans.
Some districts, however, are disclosing information about the steps they are taking.
When the new $55-million K-12 school in the Northridge Local School District north of Dayton is finished later this year, hard-wired into the hallways will be a $132,560 emergency alarm system that can be pulled to summon police and instantly convey key information.
At the newly-opened Urbana High School and Urbana Elementary and Junior High School, each classroom has a “rescue window” that can be easily and fully opened. First-floor windows have special lamination to make them harder to break in the event of someone trying to force their way inside. One hundred fifty-seven security cameras keep watch. Doors can be locked from the inside with a common key and outside doors require a badge to open.
In Kettering school buildings, some classrooms are being equipped with additional door locking devices, which cost $60 to $70 each.
In Madison Schools in Butler County, staff and teachers who volunteer to take special training have access to firearms inside the schools to protect against threats.
“There is constantly something new coming out and what we have to look at is, again, is that going to work for our district and what is the cost associated with that,” said Scott Gilbert, business director for Miamisburg City Schools.
Ohio’s 600-plus school districts operate independently on all sorts of issues, including when it comes to school security. Many records on what school districts are doing are exempt from public inspection on the argument that such records could help a potential-assailant plan an attack.
School shootings remain rare relative to shooting incidents away from schools, but concern over school safety ramps up after every high profile tragedy. School shootings in Ohio include a student at Chardon High School killing three classmates in 2012; a student bringing a gun to Madison Junior/Senior High School in Butler County in 2016 and wounding four classmates; and a 17-year-old student, Ely Serna, bringing a shotgun to West Liberty-Salem High School in Logan County in 2017 and wounding one classmate.
Districts have responded with a flurry of construction, policies, security measures and in some cases arming staff and seeking more counseling services for troubled students. In 2018 11 districts asked local voters to approve levies to fund school security. Five of them passed, according to data kept by the Ohio School Boards Association.
“As frequent as school shootings feel, they are still a very very rare occurrence. We don’t have any data whatsoever that demonstrates arming teachers or securing windows or any of the other things that we might choose to do make a difference,” said state Senate Education Committee Chairwoman Peggy Lehner, R-Kettering. “You see a plethora of options that a wide variety of people with different perspectives choose to employ but whether one is better than another, we can’t say.”
State officials don’t keep a list of which districts allow teachers and staff to carry concealed firearms.
“We don’t give that information out because like federal marshals on an airplane – schools are safer when you don’t know which districts are arming their staff,” said Jim Irvine of Buckeye Firearms Association and FASTER Training Saves Lives, which has trained 2,000 educators across 15 states. “There are over 100 districts in Ohio that have armed staff protecting kids now. It’s a lot more common than you’d think.”
At least 43 schools have permitted staff members to carry or have access to firearms, according to survey results compiled by the Ohio Department of Public Safety and Ohio Facilities Construction Commission in a February 2019 report.
Some local school districts have been open about their gun policies. Sidney schools in Shelby County, Newton Local in Miami County and Mad River school districts in Montgomery County have trained response teams, in which teachers or other school staff can retrieve guns from locked safes in case of an emergency.
Near Trenton in Butler County, Edgewood’s school board publicly approved a concealed carry policy five years ago, allowing administrators to carry firearms on school grounds. But they have recently veered away from that approach, instead adding armed school resource officers to each school building.
On Feb. 29, 2016, then eighth-grader Austin Hancock opened fire in Butler County’s Madison Junior/Senior High School cafeteria, injuring four students. The Madison school board decided to arm staff who go through volunteer training — a move that led to a lawsuit by four parents.
Last week Butler County Judge Charles Pater said the Middletown-area school district’s policy is sufficient, requiring staffers to have 27 hours of training, rather than the 700-plus hours required of peace officers, in order to carry concealed weapons in school.
Irvine said districts shouldn’t force staff to carry weapons. “This is a huge ask for somebody to do. They didn’t sign up for this when they became teachers….it’s not for everybody.”
Irvine said he believes districts should employ multiple security measures such as training and arming staff, hiring officers, fortifying buildings and more. “Many or most of the above. They’re all important. There is no one thing that makes us safe. Redundant and overlapping layers is what makes us safe.”
When asked whether arming teachers is a good or bad idea, Butler County Sheriff’s Deputy Doug Hale, who has spent 24 years of his career as a school resource officer, replied: “My boss is in favor of that. I do not have a personal opinion when I’m in my uniform.”
Hale, a member of the Ohio School Resource Officers Association, said when he started working in Lakota Schools in 1995, there were two officers; now there are 18. Across Ohio, 65 percent of districts have SROs in school buildings and the association now has just less than 900 members, he said.
Police officers in the school hallways can quickly respond to threats and emergencies, get to know the students and educate kids on other issues, such as what do to do when pulled over by police, Hale said.
In the recent survey of more than 3,700 school buildings, more than 50 percent reported they had a school resource officer on campus at least part of the day.
Others oppose adding armed police to schools, saying it can lead to more student arrests and put them into the criminal justice system.
Some school officials say safety efforts hinge more on the personal connections adults have with the children in their care.
“The No. 1 thing you can have going for you as a school district is having people who are in tune with students and students feel comfortable talking to you and you can head things off at the pass,” Urbana Superintendent Charles Thiel said.
Lehner, who has focused on education policy for several years, said her preference is to hire more mental health counselors who are equipped to deal with multiple problems. “In general, a mental health worker adds far more value to that school than an SRO,” she said.
According to data from the Ohio Department of Education, there are 4,122 “full-time equivalent” employees working as school counselors across the state. While the big districts tend to have the most, some 440 districts employ four or fewer FTE counselors. Dayton City Schools reported to ODE that it has 12 full-time equivalent counselors districtwide.
In many districts, schools contract with outside agencies such as South Community or Samaritan Behavioral Health for additional counseling and mental health therapy resources beyond their internal employees. Dayton Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said last week that if DPS had extra money to spend, her first goal would be to hire behavioral and mental health specialists for every school.
The Ohio education and public safety departments keep track of emergency response plans filed by each district. Districts must detail plans for lockdowns, evacuations, family reunification, bomb threats, bullying, storms, floods, gas leaks, medical pandemics and more. The plans are not subject to public disclosure under Ohio’s open records laws.
An Ohio Department of Education spokesman declined to disclose how many districts have current plans on file nor how many have been deemed insufficient.
The Ohio Attorney General’s police officer training academy has put 14,824 educators through active shooter training since 2012. In 2018 the office developed a 35-page manual titled “Active Shooter Response: An Educator’s Guide” that goes along with a series of 25 online training videos covering topics such as lockdowns, barricade locks, moving the injured and what to expect when police arrive.
There is no consensus on the best way to protect school children.
A year ago, more than 1-million people took to the streets in Washington, D.C., Dayton and other communities to protest gun violence in the wake of the 17 deaths at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.
Republican John Kasich, who signed numerous gun rights bills into law as governor, changed course and began advocating for gun control measures — none of which gained approval by the Ohio General Assembly.
In December, the Federal Commission on School Safety, created after the Parkland shooting, released its final report with 93 best practices and policy recommendations to prevent, mitigate and recover from violent acts.
Recommendations call for addressing bullying problems and mental health needs; training staff on school safety; encouraging students to speak up about suspicious behavior; curbing youth access to violent media content; promoting safe storage of firearms instead of restricting purchase ages; and encouraging states to adopt red flag laws that allow temporary confiscation of weapons through a court order from people who seem to be a danger to themselves or others.
Last year, then-governor John Kasich unsuccessfully pushed legislators to pass a red flag law.
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