The Journal Gazette
Monday, October 22, 2018 1:00 am

Threat of school shootings has parents feeling on edge

RON SHAWGO | For The Journal Gazette

For Jason Headlee, talk of school safety and preventing violence comes down to parenting.

Headlee has children in Harrison Hill Elementary and Memorial Park Middle schools in Fort Wayne and DeKalb High School in Waterloo. They've had no problems, and Headlee said he's comfortable with security measures the schools have taken. But violence elsewhere is disconcerting, and he knows it can happen anywhere.

“I truly feel that this is more a parent's lack of involvement that we are having the kind of situations that we have now,” he said. “It's a second-generational difference now. People are being brought up differently than they were in the past.”

Ani Diller, 11, is aware of school shootings but is not concerned about security at her school. She's never heard friends talk about it, she says. Loud noises don't startle her.

Her mom, Elizabeth Diller, said Towles Intermediate School, which Ani attends, is small enough for parents to know students well. Visitors have to buzz to enter. And an off-duty police officer is stationed at the school, near Paulding Road and Lafayette Street.

“So, in general, I feel very, very safe,” said Diller, whose 13-year-old son also attended Towles and is enrolled at Towles New Tech Middle School.

A study released in March shows a decline between 1995 and 2015 of students who are afraid of attack or harm at school, from 12 percent to 3 percent. It's uncertain how those numbers – reported by the National Center for Education Statistics, the American Institutes for Research and the Bureau of Justice Statistics – might have changed with more recent incidents, such as February's mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, which left 17 people dead.

School shootings and other violence have heightened awareness and fears among many parents.

A Sept. 21 shooting at Link's Wonderland on Creighton Avenue critically injured two men and forced a lockout at Bunche Montessori Early Childhood Center three blocks away. In a lockout, called when there is a threat outside the school, windows and doors are secured and no entry is allowed. There were 65 lockouts last school year at Fort Wayne Community Schools, spokeswoman Krista Stockman said. There have been 15 this year.

Kari Harz, whose 4-year-old daughter goes to Bunche, said it's a different world from the one she knew growing up in Churubusco.

“We had two or three bomb threats, I think, and all they did was make us sit in the parking lot,” Harz recalls. “I'm 32 and a lot has changed. And it scares me every single day I walk away from them, knowing that my husband and I are on separate sides of town and the kids are at separate schools.”

Harz, who also has a 6-year-old son at Towles, said her children are too young to understand concerns about school safety. In two years both will ride a school bus “and that scares the hell out of me, because I've transported them to school every day of their lives,” she said.

Aundrea Snyder has a 15-year-old son who went through eighth grade at St. John the Baptist school and is a freshman at Bishop Luers High School. She also remembers a simpler time.

“With me, my high school, I grew up in a small town in Ohio and we were allowed to leave for lunch,” she said. “We could go out to a 45-minute lunch. We would go run down the alley to the local pizza place and eat pizza every day. These kids don't even get to do that.”

Instead, the family talks at home when shootings are reported elsewhere, Snyder said. Her son feels safer because schools are locked, and the Catholic schools he has attended have no-tolerance policies for bullying. If caught, even in a fight, a student can be kicked out, she said. No second chance.

“It is nice to know they do take the precautions with the lockdowns and keep the doors locked throughout the entire day,” Snyder said.

Headlee said the last time he went inside the Memorial Park Middle School office to pick up his son early, he started to step out to see if the boy was coming. “And they actually stopped me,” he said. “They said, 'You can't go into the school.' And that kind of surprised me.” But, Headlee said, he appreciated the caution.

In 2015, a higher percentage of female students and Hispanic students reported being afraid of harm at school and away from school, according to the study. Harz, a self-described “helicopter mom,” said she's especially concerned having a daughter.

A gun-rights supporter, Harz said she has heard about active shooter drills at other schools.

“Personally, I don't think that's a terrible idea, because then they know why they're doing what they're doing,” she said of students. “You're not just covering them and saying, 'OK, let's go in this room and count to 10.' They know why they're leaving. They know they have to get to somewhere safe.”

Diller said after a school shooting, especially with Parkland, students tend to talk about it. Being “hyperaware of it” makes them more scared, she said. 

“It's one of those things that it's probably good that they are aware of it, so they can be aware of their surroundings in a different way,” she said. “But I feel the time they feel most insecure is right after” a shooting.

Sixth-grader Ani Diller describes that moment this way: “It's sad, and I feel bad for their parents, and I hope it doesn't happen to our school or anybody in Fort Wayne or anybody ever again.”

Headlee doesn't expect things to get better soon.

“I feel it's a foundational issue at this point, that unless we can change the way kids are being brought up, change their attitudes toward violence and everything else,” he said, “it's going to get worse before it gets better.”

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