Offense or defense? The growing fight over fortifying school security

Editor's Note: The Journal-News spent March investigating the most important issues facing Butler County and its residents. One of those investigations was into an issue that can face all families: School security. This story first published on Sunday, March 17.

Everyone is of the same mind about importance of protecting local schools from deadly violence.

But for many in Butler County and beyond, the agreement ends there.

There’s a growing divide among schools, law enforcement officials, national school security experts and relatives of mass school shootings victims about where the focus on school security should be channeled.

Some contend the limited resources of security funding, personnel and safety technology should go to making area schools into “hardened targets” against deadly armed attacks from outside their walls.

To that end, millions of dollars locally, in Ohio and nationally have gone into a never-before-seen fortification of America’s schools. Funds have been used to strengthen doors, install alarms, cover windows with bullet resistant films, use cameras to monitor and force visitors to produce identification and a verified reason to enter their children’s local schools.

MORE: Ohio schools fortify by spending millions on security against school shooter threats

But others argue against that approach, saying it’s the potential dangers within school walls — of mentally or emotionally troubled students prone to violence, weapons brought into schools, gang fights and bullying escalating to physical attacks — that deserve more attention.

“These schools are concentrating too much on defense and ways to prevent the bullets from coming through windows … they should be more on offense, they should be working from inside out, and they are not doing that,” said Butler County Sheriff Richard Jones, a longtime critic of some local school districts’ handling of security.

Jones pointed to last week’s discovery of a handgun in a student locker at Hamilton’s Wilson Middle School, a fight last month at Hamilton Freshman School that saw nearly a half-dozen students arrested and violent attack threats leading to student arrests this school year and last at Edgewood and Lakota school districts.

“When the weapons are coming into schools, you need to basically stop that and the way to stop it is all the schools should have metal detectors. I understand why they don’t want to. Their philosophy is they think it makes the schools (appear) too hard,” said Jones of schools’ opposition to walk-through metal detectors.

School officials have also described such large, stationary metal detectors as impractical, expensive and giving local schools the unwanted appearance of prison-like facilities.

But a mother of a child gunned down in America’s most deadly K-12 school shooting disagrees.

“In terms of arming teachers, I’m not personally a fan of that,” said Nicole Hockley, whose 6-year-old boy was among the 28 students and staffers gunned down in 2012 by an intruder at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

Hockley recently spoke at Mason High School in southern Warren County telling students and school officials how important it is for schools to focus on identifying students at risk for committing deadly violence long before they lash out.

“Teachers have enough on their plates right now,” she said of the idea, adding that she preferred “trained security personnel deal with any intruder issues.”

But Wilson school parent Randy Romer said more has to be done to prevent and detect dangers coming from students.

“We have kids frightened about going to school. Make the kids feel safe and install metal detectors at the doors. Not use antiquated metal wands and randomly profile who gets a wand and who doesn’t,” Romer said.

Looking to prevention

Hockley travels the country as co-founder and managing director of the national Sandy Hook Promise organization, which teaches students to be part of the solution by recognizing warning signs in their classmates of violent or suicidal tendencies and how to handle those situations.

“School security is very important and each school needs to do what they feel is best. We focus more on upstream violence prevention. What can we do to help kids before it ever reaches the point you would need a security system or an armed guard for,” she said.

Ken Trump, a nationally recognized expert on school security, also objects to Jones’ advocacy for arming teachers and other school staffers and echoes Hockley’s call for more mental-health assessment and counseling of students in schools.

“The idea of arming school staff is a high-risk, high-liability proposition,” said Trump, who is president of the National School Safety and Security Services located in Cleveland.

“There are many proven best practices for school safety, security, and emergency preparedness - none of which involve arming school staff.And the politically charged context fueled by the Butler County sheriff’s agenda for arming school staff appears to be divisive and counter to the best practice of building a collaborative school-community approach to comprehensive school safety planning.”

“Yet some still advocate for a skewed focus on target hardening while neglecting the time and resources needed to spend on professional development training, planning, behavioral and mental health intervention supports for students, and other best practices. Research and experience consistently shows that a comprehensive approach is needed for school safety programs,” said Trump.

That’s the direction Hamilton Schools has been pushing for.

Officials from the city schools were among the lead campaigners for last fall’s unsuccessful school security tax levy offered collectively by Hamilton, Fairfield, Monroe, Edgewood and New Miami schools.

In 2018, 11 districts statewide asked local voters to approve levies to fund school security. Five of them passed, according to the Ohio School Boards Association.

The Butler County tax hike, which voters in the five districts widely defeated, would have provided millions of dollars in school security hardware and paid for more school counselors and student mental health programs.

Joni Copas, spokesperson for Hamilton schools, said “one effort … is the continued expanded presence of mental wellness professionals in our schools to work with those students dealing with adverse childhood experiences.”

Hamilton is working to asses the needs of all of its 13 buildings so they can partner with mental health agencies to serve those buildings’ needs.

Matt Bradley is one of six school counselors at Hamilton High School, and he said “schools have changed in recent years to become more proactive about identifying and helping troubled students.”

Fortifying school buildings with armed security guards or teachers with guns gets a lot of headlines, said Bradley, but an undercurrent trend for many schools has also been the greater awareness about improving the collective mental health of students.

“It’s been a focus of our profession since Sandy Hook,” Bradley said. “What can we do to prevent the next bad situation?”

But Hamilton and other school districts need more counselors, said Bradley, who sees up to 28 students per school day.

“A lot kids are coming to us and in some ways we are triaging and trying to calm things down,” he said.

Trying multiple strategies

No school system in southwest Ohio has been more aggressive in arming teachers and other staffers than Madison.

The district’s heightened interest in adding deadly force to its security options stems largely from the 2016 school shooting that saw a student enter the school with a hidden handgun and then wound four classmates.

At least 43 schools have permitted staff members to carry or have access to firearms, according to survey results compiled by the Ohio Department of Public Safety and Ohio Facilities Construction Commission in a February 2019 report.

Madison has drawn wide attention, critics and an opposing lawsuit, which despite being funded by a national anti-gun lobbying group was recently defeated by a local judge’s ruling.

School officials are secretive about some aspects of their weapon-based security plan, which is allowed under Ohio law governing the need for privacy in state-filed school safety plans, but reporting first done by the Journal-News has revealed that up to 10 staffers now have access to handguns in Madison’s schools.

“They are one of the safest schools in this part of the country,” Jones said. “They really adapted well from that bad incident. An (armed) school resource officer isn’t enough. If they are not at the particular site of the shooting then you should have a plan B and a plan C.

“Plan B and plan C here is to have an armed personnel, just in case. You need to have back up plans and this is back up plan.”

Ohio Senator Bill Coley, R-Liberty Twp., supports that sort of backup plan with one overriding caveat: those school staffers with handguns must be properly trained.

“I like it when bad guys have to worry who might have a weapon,” Coley said.

But he said getting to more secure schools requires at least a two-fold strategy.

“It comes down to soft issues too,” he said. “When (school staffers or students) see something, say something. There has to be a way for when students know a fellow student is having a crisis in their life and they might be considering something as radical as bringing a firearm to school and you get that person some counseling help.

“Those kind of things are all part of creating a safe school.”

Jones, who has spent years arguing with area school officials, isn’t optimistic about convincing others to adopt Madison’s approach.

“It’s very hard to penetrate these school systems’ (attitudes),” he said, “because they (school officials) are the smartest people that ever lived and if you don’t believe that, all you need to do is ask them.”

By the numbers

1.7 million: Students in Ohio schools

134,000: Teachers in Ohio schools

28: Number killed in 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary shooting, deadliest non-college school shooting incident in history

11: Ohio school districts , including five in Butler County — Hamilton, Fairfield, Edgewood, Monroe and New Miami — that asked their local voters to approve tax hikes to fund school security in 2018.

5: Number of those issues that passed in Ohio, although none locally

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