Ohio’s attorney general makes school safety push

First Posted: 4/10/2015

LIMA — On the same day Ohio Attorney General Mike DeWine was in town last week an Elida teenager was charged with threatening violence at his high school.

It’s an occurrence that has happened more than once at Elida High School and at other schools in the region. School officials take a zero-tolerance approach and students not only face expulsion from school but heavy criminal charges.

There’s a vigorous debate locally — and nationally — on how best to protect children. Some school districts are proposing training and arming teachers or other staff. Other districts have hired, or are in the process of hiring, school resource officers, often retired police officers, to serve as onsite security.

Lima schools announced two weeks ago the district would hire nine school resource officers, one for each school. At the same time, Elida schools hired six school resource officers, two for each of the three buildings in the district. The officers are special deputies from the Allen County Sheriff’s Office.

Besides increasing safety measures with an officer inside a school, that officer also serves as a positive role model for the students and creates a positive interaction between police officials and children, DeWine said.

“I like the idea,” DeWine said.

Elida schools Superintendent Tony Cox said having sheriff deputies at the schools is invaluable and administrators turn to them daily for advice.

“We have situations every day; having a law enforcement opinion helps. We deal with a lot of situations whether it’s upset parents or something else,” Cox said.

Elida pays the deputies $23 an hour. Three work the 7.5-hour school day each day. Cox and administrators are looking at ways to lower that cost, including paying less, finding grant money and the number of hours officers are needed on the clock, he said.

While Elida is paying for the security, funding is an issue for any school district, Cox said.

“I know Mr. DeWine talks about school safety and how serious to take it but it would be nice to get some funding for every school district so they have SROs,” Cox said.

DeWine is a supporter of school resource officers and said he has pushed for all schools to have a comprehensive safety plan for the past decade. After the killing of three people at Chardon High School in 2012, DeWine’s staff began looking at every school in the state to see if the required safety plan was in place.

The results were shocking. Plans varied from a couple of pages to very elaborate that addressed not only attempts at school violence but tornado and fire safety. But some schools did not have a plan, DeWine said.

Lima schools has a 110-page plan for each school in the district. The plan is updated every three years, per state requirements, said Beth Jokinen, a spokeswoman for Lima schools.

“Plans are comprehensive and a lot of work,” Jokinen said.

Lima schools has had safety plans for decades to deal with fire drills and tornados. The concept of managing violence has mainly been addressed in the past two decades after high-profile national incidents of school violence, she said.

Cox said plans are going to evolve to deal with all foreseeable current issues as well as match safety measures such as security cameras and other technology. Elida’s plan for each building is eight to 10 pages, not including diagrams of the layout of each building.

“Plans change, evolve and need to be fluid in different situations. With each issue you look at what happened and what you have done,” Cox said.

Once schools came on board, DeWine’s office began loading the plans into a computer database for police officers in the state. That would allow a responding officer, even if unfamiliar with the building, to gain intelligence to whatever emergency is happening at the school, DeWine said.

The plans also addressed the underlying problem of a mental health issue that sometimes a student shows signs of before acting out with violence, DeWine said.

“Part of a good plan is how do we deal with a student in school who has a mental health problem [who] we think could possibly become an active shooter,” DeWine said.

Plans serve as roadmaps that address safety issues, police response and mental health, he said.

“The quality of these school safety plans have gone up dramatically since we started working with them,” DeWine said.

DeWine does not take a stance, either way, on arming staff but cautioned if a school district does that the armed staff members need to be highly trained.

“It is not just about your ability to shoot, it’s about your ability to know when to shoot, your judgment,” DeWine said.

He said the training would be similar to that which police officers receive but would exclude topics such as driving or knowing criminal laws.

Elida schools will hold a meeting Tuesday evening in the high school auditorium to discuss arming trained staff members. Administrators will present a proposal and hear from the public, Cox said.

Schools also have taken other safety steps such as ALICE training, which shows teachers and staff how to deal with an active killer by methods such as trying to escape to safety, locking down in a classroom and making it impenetrable, and in the worst-case scenario engaging the assailant.

Locally in the past 11 years there have been plots foiled to set off bombs and shoot up Lima Senior, to stab administrators and others at Elida Middle School last year as well as other threats.

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