Two unique school security and safety measures that made news this month in Butler County have underlined the attention officials are giving to school security as some say the moves are only for show.
Thousands of students at Madison Schools underwent first-time backpack searches for weapons and drugs. The early morning search on Nov. 8 saw busloads of students waiting for their group to be called to line up at the school’s main entrance for bag searches by armed school police officers.
Madison, which was the site of a student school shooting in 2016, has since been the regional leader in adopting – with some legal opposition – an aggressive school security approach that includes its status of the only area district to arm some trained school staffers.
And days later, Badin High School in Hamilton announced for the first time it will begin to randomly drug test its students beginning in January. Officials said results, which will come from testing urine and hair samples, would be confidential between the school, the student and the family.
Each student will be randomly tested at least once per school year, though some students will be tested more than once so they won’t believe they can use drugs without detection after they are tested, officials said.
Badin, which is the only Catholic high school in Butler County, has also recently installed a new entrance area controlled by a school security guard to better identify, monitor and protect the school.
The local moves are the latest in an evolution of ever-increasing security measures that proponents say are overdue in the wake of deadly school incidents in recent years.
Community members in the rural Madison school district took to social media after the backpack searches to comment on the newly expanded security measure.
“I appreciate the safety measures the school has taken,” said Madison High School parent Melissa Morningstar.
Students may complain about it, said Morningstar, but not many parents.
“Our kids’ safety comes first before anything else,” she said.
Other officials at area school districts differ from Madison’s new, crowd search approach, they said, in that they instead search specific students – or their lockers – when tips about weapons or drugs come to school staffers or local police.
Ohio law allows such searches of students, their possessions, lockers, cars – including the use of police drug- or bomb-sniffing dogs - while they are on school grounds.
But national school security expert Ken Trump said both Madison’s multi-grade approach of searching middle and high school students at the same time is more for show than effectiveness.
“Doing wide-scale student bag searches, especially for a non-specific threat, tends to be more security theater than anything else. It is like trying to find a needle in a haystack,” said Trump, who is president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services.
“Security theater typically solves image and perception concerns, not necessarily concerns about an actual real safety threat.”It is doubtful that school staff, even accompanied by police officers, would be able to thoroughly search each book bag, backpack, and other items with the degree of thoroughness to cover potential hidden compartment sections, areas obscured by books and other belongings, and associated areas.”
Madison Schools Superintendent Lisa Tuttle-Huff did not respond to messages seeking more information regarding the results of the bag searches.
“As always, the number one way we learn about weapons, potential plots, suicide threats, and other safety concerns is when students come forward and tell adults they trust,” Trump said.
“School staff and administrators need have the relationships, skills, and training to interview reporting persons in a manner that helps them do the investigative leg work to get to the original sources of the threat concern, rumors, and related information to determine the threat credibility.”
Officials at the 16,500-student Lakota Schools and its 22 school buildings, which is the largest district in Butler County, said they take a different approach.
“Lakota has not conducted a search like (Madison) … in recent years,” said Betsy Fuller, spokeswoman for the schools. “A search of a backpack, locker or property would be done if we have reasonable suspicion that there has been a violation of the Lakota student code of conduct or the law.”
And, she said, “we encourage all of our students to tell a trusted adult if they see or hear something suspicious.”
Hamilton Schools and other local districts periodically use hand-held metal detectors to scan students and others at school and at some sporting events.
Talawanda Schools officials said large-scale searches of all students are not used in the Butler County district.
“Talawanda typically would not conduct a search unless there was a reason or suspicion of something harmful that would warrant a search,” said district spokeswoman Holli Morrish.
But Madison school parent Jim Freels said he welcomed school officials’ new security tactic, saying “I appreciate my kids being safe.”
Besides, said Freels, there are few options available besides periodically searching all student backpacks and other bags that sends the same sort of high-profile warning for any student who may be considering sneaking in a gun or drugs.
“I don’t know how else they (school officials) would do it,” Freels said.
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