Educators and security experts have warned for years that if an attacker is determined to get into a school, he can do so. The goal has been to make it more difficult, and to teach students and staff how to react if it happens.
But that may not be enough anymore. Continued school shootings and repeated local threats — last week brought more incidents of students bringing guns to school and a flood of lockdowns — have educators, students and families crying out for better solutions.
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Districts have put a variety of security measures in place. Sidney schools host multiple armed law enforcement officers, and Mad River schools have trained staff with access to guns. The Kings school district invested in small barricade devices to lockdown classroom doors in an emergency. Kettering is dramatically expanding its security camera system.
But until the moment a tragedy happens — or is prevented — it’s hard to know what investments will make a difference. Longtime school security expert Ken Trump said the solution is more about people than buildings or technology. He said training on how to react and communicate before and during crisis circumstances is the best strategy.
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“The question is whether school districts are making the time available to get this information to (all school officials),” he said. “In many cases, schools are looking for the quick fix of throwing up more cameras and fortifying front entrances when forensic analyses of school shootings reveal the issues are alleged failures of people and procedures, not failures of security products and hardware.”
‘Kids are scared’
The Miami Valley has seen school shootings at Madison and West Liberty-Salem in the past two years — injuring five students. The national shootings, along with the frequent threats and close calls in local districts, have students, educators and parents all on edge.
Kids in Dayton, Kettering, Northridge, Middletown, Sidney and Northwestern have brought guns to school in the past six months. Lockdowns have occurred in nearly every local school district because of bomb threats, gun threats and vague social media claims — including at least a dozen in the past 10 days.
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At least four students were arrested Thursday as police and school administrators across southwest Ohio tracked down threats of violence just a week after 17 died in the shooting at the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla.
“Kids are scared,” Mad River Superintendent Chad Wyen said after the Florida shooting. They’re also motivated — willing to walk out of school in protest if need be.
Pleadings from students for more gun control measures are reverberating nationally as well as locally.
“I think when it comes down to it, if we get in trouble, it’s much more important to stand up for something like this than (worry about) something like a truancy,” said Fairmont High School sophomore Meigan Karolak, who favors more gun control.
Relationships are key
School safety officers say it’s important they maintain a visible presence in the schools.
“They know I’m here five days a week and they see me every day,” said Kettering police officer Edward Drayton, the resource officer assigned to Fairmont High School. “I think that builds an issue of trust with the kids. If they have dealings with me, they see how I usually operate, and they’ll come back.”
Drayton spends most lunch periods getting on a first-name basis with as many of the 2,300 kids as possible — learning about their families and jobs and what they do for fun.
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He also wants them to trust him enough so they’ll report what they see, even if it seems like nothing. While reporting borderline behavior can take a lot of courage for teen-agers, he said, it can turn out to be very valuable.
Erich Merkle, past president of the Ohio School Psychologists Association, said proactive steps like the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports system (PBIS), which all Ohio schools are being asked to implement, are key to reaching marginalized or bullied students who have been responsible for some school attacks.
The program calls for rethinking some traditional approaches for dealing with student behavior. Although the response from some schools has been great, “you have others that I’m not sure could even spell out the acronym,” Merkle said.
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Schools that do make a commitment to the program can identify students “that have social-emotional vulnerabilities or risk factors,” Merkle said. A threat assessment can reveal the severity of a student’s problem, and whether they have the motivation, capacity and resources to act on it, he said.
Springfield Superintendent Bob Hill said parents should not fear sending their kids to school. Statistics show students are safer inside a school than they are “walking to and from school, or at Kroger, as a matter of fact,” he said,
But schools need parents to work with them on keeping their buildings safe, Hill said, by communicating with their kids and also communicating with the schools.
“They need to reiterate what we tell them about reporting to an adult when something doesn’t look right,” he said. “The more communication we can have, the safer schools will be.”
No universal fix
Officials say there is no universal fix that will prevent a school shooting.
One big focus has been securing school buildings, and more than 3,000 Ohio schools used $15 million in state grant funding from 2013-17 to purchase emergency communications systems or enhance school entrance systems.
Melanie Drerup, chief of planning for the Ohio Facilities Construction Commission, said locked, “buzz-in” entrance systems are now extremely common, and some schools use classroom panic buttons, or main office ID scanners that can quickly tell staff whether a visitor has a criminal warrant.
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Building design now focuses on better sight lines in hallways and stairwells, and eliminating odd niches that can serve as hiding places, she said.
Kings Local Schools in Warren County has small metal doorstops called “Bearacades” for each classroom to use in case of a lockdown. A sturdy metal pin goes through the metal wedge and into a hole drilled in the floor, preventing classroom doors from being forced open. Many students are trained in how to install the devices.
“It is really appreciated around here, especially after what happened (in Florida) because it shows us that the teachers want to keep us safe,” Kings senior Chris Lane said.
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Edgewood schools approved a multi-step concealed carry policy to allow trained and qualified staff to carry guns in school. President Donald Trump endorsed policies like those on Wednesday, saying it would change the image of schools as “gun-free” soft targets, and could end any attacks more quickly.
Dayton Public Schools is one of the few local districts to require students to go through metal detectors in the morning. District officials would not publicly discuss when and where metal detectors are used.
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Dayton teachers union President David Romick said shootings are something that’s on all teachers’ minds. But he said fights and assaults — not just major school shootings — need to be addressed, with a message that violence will not be tolerated.
Acting Superintendent Elizabeth Lolli said Dayton Public Schools is about to reopen a district-wide discipline committee with the teachers union. She agreed that bullying issues need to be addressed early, because they can escalate into more serious problems.
At a state level, both Republicans and Democrats are calling for increased focus on school safety. State Sen. Joe Schiavoni, a Democratic candidate for governor, said his Senate Bill 258 aims to provide grants so schools could improve safety measures. He said he is considering gun legislation as well.
Republican state Rep. Andrew Brenner, chair of the Ohio House Education Committee, said his committee will take a comprehensive look at school safety, via testimony from experts in mental health, law enforcement and education.
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Some parents have mixed thoughts about the enhanced security measures.
Dave Fanjoy and Jennie Valdez both have daughters at River’s Edge school in Dayton. Valdez said the proactive measures — metal detectors in some buildings, bag searches and the like — provide “peace of mind” for parents.
But Fanjoy said it’s complicated, because he doesn’t want so much security that the schools function like prisons.
“There’s only so much preparation you can do,” he said. “You want to come up with drills and implement them, but you’re never prepared (for something so extreme) no matter how much you do. That’s just not an achievable state.”
Staff Writers Parker Perry, Michael Clark and Will Garbe contributed to this report.
Learn more about school safety at www.saferschools.ohio.gov. Schools are urged to participate in Ohio’s free, anonymous school safety tipline, at 844-SaferOH (844-723-3764). Calls and texts are answered by Ohio Homeland Security analysts.