Sweeping school security changes in place as classes begin to open

Credit: Nick Graham

Credit: Nick Graham

As area schools ramp back up for a new year of classes the top focus on officials’ minds is school security and their concerns and actions about safety are impacting an unprecedented wide range of school operations.

Recently some Butler County districts have held realistic, full-scale “active shooter drills” including Middletown Schools.

And Talawanda Schools are scheduled to hold district-wide security training sessions Monday for all its employees while other local districts have run or plan to conduct various emergency exercises with the local police and county sheriff departments, which also supply armed school building officers during the school year.

Kings Schools in southern Warren County saw its superintendent Greg Sears and County Sheriff Larry Sims produce a video for YouTube viewing announcing the hiring of two additional armed police officers for the schools.

Hamilton Schools is adding new photo ID requirements for all school building visitors as well as new security technology. The 9,000-student district is also adding six additional “safe and secure monitors” for that city’s public schools.

Butler County’s largest school system, the 17,200-student Lakota district, is adding an additional, armed police officer to its Lakota East and Lakota West high schools — two of the most populous in Ohio.

The district has also added more classroom door active-shooter barricades, devices that make entry nearly impossible once teachers place steel-reinforced door block bolts into place.

May’s horrific Texas school shooting massacre was the most recent impetus for hardening school buildings, said area school officials, but school security has been a top-of-mind-priority since the Sandy Hook school killings in 2012.

“School safety is always our first priority at Lakota and our safety and security plans are never done,” said Betsy Fuller, spokeswoman for Lakota, which has armed police officers on each of its school campuses.

The district, along with Fairfield Schools, were recently two of the top recipients for state grants to help cover the costs of security upgrades.

The local changes mirror what’s happening statewide and across the nation, said Elizabeth Beadle, spokeswoman for Middletown Schools, which opened classes on a staggered schedule Thursday and will have full attendance by all 6,300 students on Monday.

“Like all districts around the country, Middletown Schools spent the majority of the summer updating and testing our emergency response plan. We’ve always worked closely with the Middletown Police Department and we’re happy to report we’ll be adding three additional School Resource Officers (SROs or armed police officers) to our district,” said Beadle.

And though so far, no district in Butler County has seen its governing school board exercise the new state option that would allow them to permit the arming of trained school employers, the topic has been discussed among some school leaders.

Ohio Governor Mike DeWine recently noted much of the focus and attention in the law that allows teachers to carry weapons in schools has been on arming teachers but said there are other factors that go into safety.

“Again, while a lot of focus, understandably, has been on this, all the other things that you do every day to keep kids safe are frankly a lot bigger than that,” DeWine said at the Ohio School Safety Summit, an annual conference on school safety held last week.

DeWine said the state wants to have 16 mobile field trainers hired in the Ohio School Safety and Crisis Division by early September.

Earlier this month DeWine announced nearly $47 million in grant funding as part of an Ohio K-12 School Safety Grant Program, with several southwest Ohio school districts benefiting from the grant funding.

The money will be used on physical security upgrades such as security cameras, public address systems, automatic door locks, visitor badging systems and exterior lighting, according to DeWine’s office.

And another round of funding is upcoming, said Jill Del Greco, a spokeswoman for DeWine’s office.

But the sweeping security changes go beyond hardening potentially soft school building targets.

Monitoring and improving student mental health, a growing priority among districts prior to the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020 and even more so in subsequent years, has risen in importance as periodic school shootings continue nationwide.

North of Dayton, Vandalia-Butler Schools superintendent Robert O’Leary cited the importance of mental health support for students at his district, in addition to security guards, locks, cameras and police relationships.

Therapists are available, he said, but the district also has a HOPE squad, which is a peer mentor program monitored by staff, in the high school designed to prevent teen-suicides and alert school officials to troubled students who may be contemplating violence. The district also plans to begin a mentoring program with people in the community and students this upcoming school year, O’Leary said.

In 2016 a Madison High School student opened fire in the school’s cafeteria, wounding three classmates before being chased down by a school police officer.

Ed Theroux, superintendent of Talawanda Schools, recently sent a message to school families noting the historic shifts toward making schools safer from armed attacks can be disheartening but is an unavoidable necessity.

“In recent decades public schools … have found themselves the targets of unspeakable horror and school violence. It goes against everything we’ve ever held sacred to know that people have come to schools in different areas around the country with intent to harm children and school personnel.”

“Historically we have shared the belief that certain places are, or should be, off-limits to certain types of violence and destruction. Unfortunately, we have witnessed too many school violence issues resulting in deaths and injuries and we must be prepared and prepare students,” said Theroux.

Making the security improvements more difficult is the need at times for secrecy by school officials, he said, so to not tip off a potential armed attacker by revealing security procedures.”

“While we believe these acts of violence are very rare, we still need to be prepared. In conjunction with our local (police) agencies, we have developed safety plans that will not be shared with the public to prevent a possible intruder from knowing our plans.”