The costs of a growing number of school threats are many and only some are measurable.
Beyond the dollars is an incalculable emotional toll, taxing the peace of mind of parents and school officials.
Once havens of safety, schools increasingly in recent years find themselves in the cross-hairs as more frequent targets of threats of violence, shootings or bombing.
School parent Kathy Cook recalls how a decade ago her visits to her son’s Lakota grade school required no video surveillance, no buzzing in through security door and simply signing in a visitor’s book without producing identification.
“They (school building staffers) would tell me the only reason I had to sign in was in case there was a fire evacuation drill,” says Cook, a long-time school volunteer in the Butler County school system. “Now it’s because of (security) lock downs.”
“Lockdown drills are now part of our everyday language,” says Cook, who still has a child in Lakota Schools.
“Back then, when I sent my boy to school I was more concerned about his general well-being and whether he was making friends. Now today, it’s the (potentially deadly) impact of the world on the school,” she says. “It’s definitely a different world.”
And a more dangerous school world.
Last month's student shooting at Madison Jr./Sr. High School was the most recent local example.
But in the years prior, the frequency of phoned-in bomb threats and those on social media or written by students in schools has risen.
Only a tiny number of school threats are carried out.
Regardless, they set into motion a vast array of school security responses that distract and drain precious class time, personnel and immeasurable amounts of peace of mind, says nationally noted school security expert Ken Trump.
“School threats drain school-communities both emotionally and financially. Costs of threats to schools range from heightened security staffing to an immeasurable toll on the emotions of a school-community,” says Trump, president of the Cleveland-based National School Safety and Security Services, which tracks school violence nationwide.
“The threats are causing a substantial disruption of learning and school activities. Rumors and misinformation typically spreads like wildfire on social media, fueling anxiety in the school community. The anxiety can persist over days and even weeks,” says Trump.
Veteran Hamilton High School government teacher Lori Huff sees the rising toll of heightened anxiety among her colleagues.
“It’s eventually taxing to just prepare for it mentally. I don’t think there is a teacher today who doesn’t lay awake at night at times and think about how they will handle it (school emergency),” says Huff, who has taught for decades.
She praises Hamilton Schools for its security preparation and handling of threats.
“The district here has been extremely pro-active to make sure we are as prepared as we can be,” said Huff.
“I’m not scared …but these threats are happening everywhere,” says Huff.
She’s right, says Trump.
His firm’s most recent study shows school threats nationwide are up 158 percent from last school year.
And during the 2014-2015 school year, reported Trump, there were 812 school shooting and bomb threats at pre-kindergarten through 12th grade schools during the first half of the school year. Ohio led all states with 64 such threats.
THE FINANCIAL COSTS OF THREATS
Tracking the costs to individual school systems of dealing with threats is problematic because of the varying local operating budgets for each of Ohio’s 613 public school districts.
Local districts often budget security expenses differently, calculating costs under changing personnel needs – for example for school police officers also known as “school resource officers” – in various ways. And mechanical, structural and communication security enhancements — such as crisis alarm hotlines to local law enforcement — fall under various funds of local schools and may include monies from local school taxes unique to single school system.
Moreover, school buildings are not uniform. They differ widely in age, layout, etc.
Lastly, the number of school threats can fluctuate widely from district to district and not all responses to threats come with a corresponding increase in operational costs.
Nevertheless, school officials almost universally agree the overall dollar costs of installing more security measures, personnel and procedures — along with responding to more school threats — has risen sharply for most in recent years.
Phil Cagwin, superintendent of Monroe Schools, recalls starting his career teaching in the 1970s in an open classroom school, with no walls or doors between any of the classrooms.
“The entrance doors to the building were full glass and were never locked during the school day. During warm days, all classroom windows were left wide open, and all the outside doors were propped open to get a nice breeze going,” remembers Cagwin.
Those are now distant memories.
Cagwin recently attended a Buckeye Association of School Administrators (BASA) that featured seminars undreamed of a few years ago with titles of: “The Social Media Threat in a Time of Terrorism;” “Crisis Communications – When it hits the fan” and “Now What? Critical Concerns for School Safety in a Dangerous World.”)
In Hamilton Schools, officials calculate a range of security personnel, security equipment and programs to maintain safety during school days and school events – athletics, performing arts and other extracurricular activities – as totaling more than $500,000 of the district’s $110 million annual operating budget.
Larry Knapp, business manager for Hamilton Schools, points out the type, age and design of school buildings can alter how much a school district has to spend security.
“One of our biggest safety and security assets in our district is the fact that we have we new schools that were all designed and built with safety and security as a primary consideration,” says Knapp.
“School features such as limited entry access for all visitors during the school day, security camera systems, and the use of radios and other security systems are all pieces to our security protocols. We have a total of over 800 cameras in our 14 district buildings that record daily operations and help us with safety, security and other school issues,” he says.
“The cost of the camera systems were included in the cost of construction for each school, but as they age we have to replace the cameras and digital recording equipment. Just this year we have spent over $80,000 in replacement costs,” says Knapp.
Hamilton and Lakota officials, like those at most other area districts, refuse to publicly discuss specifics of school security out of concerns that publicly revealing such information may make some schools vulnerable to threats and attacks.
Lauren Boettcher, spokeswoman for Lakota Schools, echoed other district officials’ concerns about the non-monetary impact of threats.
Boettcher says school threats are “more difficult to measure, but even more significant to us is the overall disruption to learning.”
“Beyond the obvious loss of instructional time because of unplanned evacuations, for example, every single threat triggers varying degrees of response from administrators, school resource officers, parents, staff and students. Administrators must re-direct their time and energy from their support of the learning process to the situation at hand,” says Boettcher.
“Students and staff are distracted from their daily classroom routines and lessons. In some cases, parents respond by pulling their child out of class. This is a normal reaction, but one we quantify as lost instructional time for that student.”
Boettcher describes it as “this trickle-down effect that no matter who is involved, the student ends up being the one who loses out in the end,” she says.
“Everything driving our work comes back to this one question: Is it helping kids succeed? Anything else detracts from that mission.”