School safety a growing concern

First Posted: 4/3/2015

LIMA — It’s something only a monster could imagine.

When a group of minors are threatened and the integrity and innocence of a school is compromised — whether by a group of militants, a single shooter, a bomb threat — all previous conceptions of security are shattered.

Though unfathomable, the terror of school attacks continues to revive itself. The most recent incident making headlines being an invasion of Somali militants at Kenyan University, killing 147 students.

Stateside, the most deadly attack on school grounds in recent years happened in 2012 at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut, killing 26. The atrocity of the incident is only rivaled by that of the Virginia Tech Massacre, when a shooter claimed the lives of 32 people in 2007, making it the deadliest shooting incident by a single gunman in U.S. history.

“The threat of lethal violence perpetrated by the active shooter, domestic terrorism and international terrorism will affect schools for a long time,” said Richard Caster, a senior school board services consultant at the Ohio School Boards Association. “Sandy Hook has had the most profound impact on schools. Since Dec. 14, 2012, the focus has been on the ‘active shooter’ and how to respond.”

For Ohioans, the 2012 Chardon High School shooting is not easily forgotten, either. But scares, even locally — the most recent being about a week ago — happen more often than most would like to believe.

But to truly understand and explain the evolution of school safety and its policies over time would be “immense undertaking,” Caster said.

“We could go back to the ‘atomic bomb’ drills of the 1950s or the ‘active shooter’ drills currently being practiced,” he said.

By state and federal law, the responsibility of school safety and planning falls on district school boards, consulting with a limited and controlled number of local law enforcement officials. To increase students’ safety, these plans are not usually public record.

More recently, districts are also required to inform students and their parents of parental notification procedures in emergency management plans. Schools must also involve parents of students assigned to a building in the development of a comprehensive emergency plan.

In doing so, schools recognize these plans are not only catered to appease state and federal regulations, but more importantly, to meet the needs of the community.

“I believe you will find ‘local control’ as a common practice among states and the state granting power to operate under that premise,” Caster said. “You will be hard pressed to find a state with very lax safety policies. Their residents would not tolerate it. What will vary significantly would be the approach different states would take to address the myriad of threats both natural and man-made.”

For example, legislation in Ohio and other states have granted local school boards the option and power to permit certain teachers to carry concealed handguns on school grounds. Some districts, like Sidney City Schools and Edgewood schools in the Cincinnati area, have already done so.

Elida’s school board is also considering the option. Though the board hasn’t voted on the issue itself, it has approved staff to get specialized arms training.

Legislation also empowers school boards to vote on and approve peace or resource officers, something both Elida and Lima schools have previously approved. However, the public must be included in consideration, usually by public forum or meeting, and staff must have specialized training as well as a permit.

District officials, schools, governing bodies and employees are free of liability if an injury, death or loss is caused by a designated employee’s weapon, or if the weapon itself is used in compliance with the safety plan. Immunity cancels out, however, if an issue is caused by the employee.

While legislation, as well as state Sunshine Laws, do not specify whether the policy’s status is public record, it specifies the names of armed employees is information only available to the board, certain enforcement officials and the school insurance providers.

In the case of Elida schools, Superintendent Tony Cox said he doesn’t believe the school board would keep the public in the dark when the policy comes to a vote. During the last board meeting, it also renewed efforts to keep the community informed, after multiple complaints, by sending out newsletters and announcing a public forum on April 14.

Though the issue of arming teachers is increasingly controversial, Sara Clark, the director of legal services at Ohio School Boards Association, said she wouldn’t say the option is necessarily common.

Instead, most schools on national, state and regional levels are considering or using resource officers, also armed, in conjunction with local enforcement and safety plans.

Whether or not resource officers have an affect on overall safety, however, remains unknown, according to multiple studies from Congress, the U.S. Department of Justice, and the National Center for Mental Health Promotion and Youth Violence Prevention.

Still, during its last school board meeting, Lima’s school board approved the employment of nine school resource officers, one for each school. Last month, Elida approved three for each of its schools, as well.

But given the funding challenges facing Ohio’s schools, Clark said, some districts simply do not have the funding to acquire or sustain school resource officers.

“It’s up to each school board to determine if and how school resource officers fit into the district’s security plan,” she said.

Unable to put a price on student safety, Elida and Lima school board members and their superintendents made the necessary arrangements to do so.

“I think it used to be believed that you had security because you couldn’t control what was inside the school,” said Jill Ackerman, Lima City School District superintendent. “But now you have security to protect the inside of school from what’s outside.”

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