Keeping schools safe means balancing competing interests
Posted: 09/15/2013 at 3:51 pm
By: Marlys Weaver-Stoesz
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Monger School second-grade teacher Joy Graber introduces her students to a book she is about to read to them during the opening hour of the new school year Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. (Truth Photo By Jennifer Shephard, File)
Monger School second-grade teacher Joy Graber talks to Christian Alvares Sanchez, right, during the opening hour of the new school year Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013. The students were quickly learning the new routine of second grade, which included having breakfast at their desks when they arrive. (Truth Photo By Jennifer Shephard, File)
Joy Graber, a second-grade teacher at Monger Elementary School, works to settle in her students early on the first day of school on Wednesday, Aug. 14, 2013, in Elkhart, Ind. Students were given a full breakfast in the classroom, which is new to the schools this year. (Truth Photo By Jennifer Shephard)
“It’s a balance between the hardware and the ‘heartware,’” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, a national school consulting firm.
Trump and his team have been walking through Elkhart Community Schools’ buildings and meeting with school officials. They’re putting together a security assessment, with recommendations for Elkhart’s school officials on how to improve school safety.
It’s always been a concern, but issues related to security came to the forefront less than a year ago when 20 students and six adults were shot and killed at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. Closer to home, last spring, a threat written on a bathroom stall at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles in Elkhart had schools, police and the community discussing school safety.
Security measures in public places have become commonplace in the U.S., Trump explained. When people go to fast food restaurants, they go in through a limited number of entrances, there are cameras and there are people trained to welcome you and pay attention to you. Likewise, at a mall people expect cameras on the parking lot, cops walking the aisles and plainclothes police officers keeping an eye out for shoplifters.
That’s not different than what needs to go on at schools, Trump said.
“Where you need to be different, though, is striking that balance between being a warm, welcoming, supportive environment where kids feel comfortable to learn, parents feel welcome to come to the schools, but still protect against those who have ill intentions,” he continued. “That’s a very delicate balancing act for any school principal.”
“Schools are community centers. Schools are places where you want families to come at night and on the weekends. You want people to be active with sports, athletic programs, plays, drama. You want parents engaged in the school. The challenge now is how you have that community engagement and the schools as community centers and at the same time reduce the risk of sort of the new normal in that schools have to have reasonable security measures like anywhere else in society,” he continued.
Trump also mentioned how a lot of strategies appeal to parents but aren’t actually so practical or realistically safer — advice to have students throw things at an attacker, use bulletproof whiteboards, have bulletproof backpacks and arm teachers.
“They want the wow, but don’t think about the how,” Trump said. “They want the quick fix. They want that guarantee that really can’t be provided, but you have to think about how well it can be implemented.”
The National School Safety and Security Services evaluation cost Elkhart Community Schools about $2,000 per building, according to Elkhart Superintendent Rob Haworth, “which I believe is a small price to pay when considering the safety of our students and staff.”
“The scope of this audit goes beyond measures that would protect our students and staff from a cruel attack like the one at Sandy Hook Elementary,” Haworth said. “We are also concerned about protecting our students and staff from other safety-related issues like those associated with fire and tornados as well as playground and cafeteria issues. The scope of this audit includes grounds assessment, building assessment, policy assessment, transportation assessment and communication assessment, just to name a few.”
Trump explained that through the week they met with a variety of people — not only principals and teachers, but custodians, students and some parents, who all see a very different side of the school.
“No principal wants to tell a parent that they can’t give anyone 100 percent guarantee,” Trump said, “but the reality is that they can’t. What the principal can tell a parent is here are all the things reasonably possible we’re doing and here’s what some of those things are to prevent it and what we’re doing to manage it if it occurs.”
Once the assessment is completed, Elkhart school administrators will have “a list of what each school needs based upon this audit,” Haworth said. “Then we will act on that list to make our safe schools even more secure.”