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Sunday, October 14, 2018 1:00 am

Inconvenient yet essential

Safety in the classroom grows ever-more important in education planning

ASHLEY SLOBODA | The Journal Gazette

About this project

School shootings across the nation – some of them fatal – have shaken students, staff, parents and communities. The tragedies have led to protests, asking lawmakers to enact tougher gun control laws.

Reporter Ashley Sloboda and a team of other Journal Gazette reporters take an in-depth look at the violence, steps schools have taken to be better prepared to respond and other issues related to safety.

Even as Southwest Allen County Schools superintendent, Phil Downs has gotten the scrutinizing look students reserve for strangers.

It happened a few years ago at Summit Middle School, where he walked the halls wearing a trench coat that covered his district identification badge. Students noticed that seemingly missing item and alerted teachers.

“We all had a big laugh,” Downs said.

Students in general are accustomed to safety and security measures woven into the educational environment. Practices schools use include closed and locked classroom doors, uniformed and armed school resource officers, visible staff and visitor ID badges, secure entrances, security cameras and drills to prepare for crisis situations.

While school safety has many facets – including severe weather preparedness, bus evacuation drills, air quality tests and lead tests – multiple school shootings during the past academic year heightened awareness about schools' readiness to thwart and respond to acts of violence.

The Valentine's Day shooting that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, spurred student activism nationwide and led to President Donald Trump's proposal to arm teachers.

On May 18, 10 people were fatally shot at a Texas high school. A week later, a student opened fire in a Noblesville middle school science classroom, wounding a teacher and student.

In the months since, Gov. Eric Holcomb has released 18 school safety recommendations and announced a program to provide hand-held metal detectors at no cost to schools. A state senator has also promised to introduce a bill for the 2019 legislative session allowing schools to seek a referendum for school safety.

Costs can add up. East Allen County Schools, for example, recently spent more than $800,000 to build secure entrances at eight schools and in 2014 spent about $200,000 to update security camera systems at four sites. It also employs five school resource officers, a program that annually costs $275,595, according to the district.

Limited funding isn't the only challenge schools face regarding safety, however. Believing a school shooting can't happen here doesn't help, East Allen officials said in a statement.

“Even though school and workplace violence is frequently in the news, people in general do not take safety issues seriously,” the district said. “There is still a mindset that it won't happen in our community.”

Tracking violence

Multiple agencies have calculated the number of U.S. school shootings, but with different results.

That's what Child Trends, a nonpartisan nonprofit research organization, found when considering reports by Everytown for Gun Safety, the Washington Post, the FBI and the federal Civil Rights Data Collection.

NPR found fault with the Civil Rights data released in April for the 2015-16 academic year.

For the first time, schools had to report school-related shootings and school-related homicides.

With assistance from Child Trends, the news organization confirmed 11 school-related shooting incidents of nearly 240 reported.

“Data sources obtain their information about shootings from a variety of sources and define 'school shooting' differently,” according to Child Trends. “Consequently, their estimates of how many school shootings took place differ dramatically.”

At least one group – the Educator's School Safety Network – claims the rate of violent threats and incidents in K-12 schools increased from 2016-17 to 2017-18.

The national nonprofit school safety organization reported American schools experienced at least 3,380 threats in the 2017-18 academic year, up from 2,085. The number of violent incidents – guns found on campus, shootings and thwarted attacks – also increased, from 131 to 279.

Every state was affected, the safety network reported.

The frequency of threats and number of guns brought to school significantly increased in the 30 days following the Parkland shooting, the safety network found. There was an average 24.2 threats per day after the massacre, up from 10.2 per day, it reported, and the 36 guns found on campuses in that time frame accounted for 47 percent of the year's total.

“Even if a school did not directly experience an incident or threat of violence, the sheer number of incidents, the intense level of attention and the heightened anxiety among school stakeholders has an impact,” the organization said of the year overall.

“While the rate of violent incidents is obviously the larger concern, the frequency and severity of threats also negatively impacts schools as instructional time is lost, community and school resources are consumed, and perhaps most significantly, anxiety, fear and trauma increase among students, staff and parents.”

East Allen uses that angst to emphasize the importance of taking school safety seriously.

“This awareness also reinforces the need to perform safety drills and hold discussions about how to respond in case a real crisis were to occur,” the district said, noting East Allen annually requires four man-made-occurrence drills.

Turning point

School shootings can be traced to 1974, when a student in New York armed himself with guns and homemade bombs, activated the school fire alarm and shot at emergency and custodial personnel who responded, according to a federal report published in 2004.

The April 1999 shooting at Columbine High School – which killed 13 in Littleton, Colorado – was a catalyst for change.

In June 1999, the U.S. Secret Service and Department of Education began a collaborative effort to determine whether officials could have known school-based attacks were being planned and what could be done to prevent future attacks.

The agencies studied the 1974 incident of targeted school violence – along with 36 others that happened through May 2000 – to learn about attackers' thinking, planning and behaviors.

“It is clear that there is no simple explanation as to why these attacks have occurred,” according to the Safe School Initiative report. “Nor is there a simple solution to stop this problem.

“But the findings of the Safe School Initiative do suggest that some future attacks may be preventable if those responsible for safety in schools know what questions to ask and where to uncover information that may help with efforts to intervene before a school attack can occur.”

In July 1999, then-Gov. Frank O'Bannon encouraged all Indiana counties to form safe school commissions after the General Assembly required corporations designate a school safety specialist.

The Allen County School Safety Commission's accomplishments include numbering outside doors on each school building to aid emergency responders, installing a radio system allowing contact between school transportation departments and emergency dispatch centers and working with the Allen County Election Board to remove polling sites from schools to close a security loophole.

The commission remains active and includes representation from public and non-public schools, universities, emergency responders, and county, city and federal agencies.

Co-chair John Miller, a Northwest Allen County Schools administrator, described it as very beneficial. Members regularly meet to share, discuss and collaborate to create safe places for children, he said.

Safety strategies

With many tools available to secure schools, arming teachers shouldn't be a school's first step in safety, says Dottie Davis, security director for Fort Wayne Community Schools. Districts first must master the smaller efforts, such as visitor management.

Along with vetting volunteers and vendors, Davis said, Fort Wayne Community uses a system that checks visitors' identities against the national sex offender registry and an internal exclusion list barring entry from all FWCS property. Individuals on the internal list exhibited behavior resulting in the district determining they could be a safety risk. They can include terminated employees and those who made threats or didn't follow district safety procedures.

This helps schools keep unwanted people out and lets Davis know who is inside a building should an emergency occur.

Davis and Miller credited front office staff for their role in security. Those employees can identify unusual behavior, see whether visitors are agitated or in a hurry and slow them with conversation, they said.

“Our office folks deserve a lot of credit,” Miller said.

Employee identification badges are common in Allen County schools. Nationwide, the number of public schools requiring staff to wear picture IDs has increased from about 25 percent in 1999-2000 to nearly 70 percent in 2015-16, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

The requirement is less common for students, the agency reported, noting the practice was required by only 7 percent of public schools in 2015-16.

Fort Wayne Community is moving in that direction, Davis said. High school students have student IDs, but they have limited use.

The new IDs would be worn as badges, like employees, and could be connected to other uses, such as bus ridership, library checkouts and cafeteria purchases to increase students' reliance on them and, hopefully, reduce lost cards.

Parkview Education Center students are piloting a badge system.

Downs, the superintendent at Southwest Allen, asserts the No. 1 safety feature isn't a fancy gadget or investment in secure entrances.

Rather, he said, the best preventive measure is good relationships between children and adults.

School resource officers are among those with whom students connect, officials said, with Miller describing them as “very much part of the school fabric.”

Staffing every building with a school resource officer is ideal, officials said, but costs and available manpower make that difficult. Schools need officers who work well in an educational environment, Davis said.

Anonymous tip lines can also be useful, Southwest Allen officials said.

School officials understand parents want information or a visible, quick response when incidents happen, but they said that's not always possible.

Privacy considerations can limit the details shared, Downs said.

He acknowledged that can be frustrating – as can the other security measures visitors must adhere to, such as entering schools through secure vestibules.

“Safety,” Downs said, “is not convenient.”

asloboda@jg.net