Expert: School safety needs to go beyond focus on shooters

Active shooters dominate talk about school safety in America, with many area schools adding fortifications or armed response plans. But security experts are encouraging schools to focus on smaller, day-to-day student issues as well, saying these are more common and are sometimes the root cause of the bigger tragedies.

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“As a society we have gotten a tunnel vision focus on active shooters,” said Ken Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services. “There are many potential scenarios such as non-custodial parent concerns, bullying, and other threats that are lower-impact but higher probability of being faced by school administrators. School safety planning requires a balanced and comprehensive approach.”

Trump said more money for non-firearm based security upgrades are overall more effective.

“Far too many school officials are taking a skewed approach to school safety with ‘target-hardening’ — security hardware and products — to appeal to parents’ emotional security needs to see a visible, tangible change that they can equate to ‘improved security’ at their child’s school,” said Trump.

“I have mixed emotions about school levies exclusively for school safety. On one hand, I believe that school districts should budget funds as part of their general operating budget as one of the costs of the business of education just as they do for custodial, food services, transportation, and other support services. Why should safety not be a part of a school’s standard operating expense?” said Trump.

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“On the other hand, if a special levy dedicated fully and exclusively to school security can be presented to voters with full transparency and then implemented as presented to voters before they vote, I feel it is up to the voters to cast their ballots based upon their being fully informed and upon their confidence in the local school leaders to implement an approved levy as promised in a timely, effective, and on-budget manner,” he said.

Public perceptions on school safety needs are affected by horrific school shootings — the 17 dead in Parkland, Fla., in February, 10 dead in Santa Fe, Texas, in May — and even non-fatal cases like in Madison Local Schools.

According to a recent Ball State University survey, 36 percent of Midwestern parents believe that in the next three years, their local high school is ‘highly likely’ to have a shooting, gun threat or armed student incident.

In the first years after the 2012 Newtown, Conn., shooting, schools across the nation beefed up physical security with more locked doors, camera systems and buzz-in entrance “vestibules.”

But in the past two years, state education officials have pushed schools to also focus on creating day-to-day positive school climate, by supporting at-risk students, providing mental health services and using schoolwide messaging.

“Threat assessment is a reactive process” in handling school safety issues, said Erich Merkle, past president of the Ohio School Psychologists Association. “The best approach is employing positive behavior intervention supports (PBIS) to shift school culture … as the proactive strategy.”

Merkle encourages students and school staff to reach out to students who are disconnected from the school society, who go through major life trauma, or are having academic and behavioral problems. While cautioning against overly broad profiles, Merkle said several student shooters have had those experiences.

Nikolas Cruz, who confessed to the Parkland shooting, had made previous threats, been expelled, and had both of his adopted parents die. A Connecticut state report said Sandy Hook shooter Adam Lanza suffered from depression and other mental health problems and had demonstrated a preoccupation with violence before the massacre.

“Society is not what it was five years ago, 10 years ago or even two years ago,” Fairfield City Schools Superintendent Billy Smith previously told the Journal-News.

“We (superintendents) have been having lots of conversations about students’ readiness to learn, and mental health is a huge barrier for the students we serve and it’s a huge barrier for learning,” he said.

New Miami Superintendent Rhonda Parker agreed, and said because of the lack of funding “there’s a gap between who can be served and who can not.”

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