SUNDAY EDITION | School shootings spur safety efforts in Kentuckiana
LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) – Months after deadly school shootings in Florida and western Kentucky, myriad efforts are underway to boost school security in Kentuckiana.
Jefferson County Public Schools is considering creating its own security force, while Oldham County’s schools plan to use police officers to supplement the school resource officers now in place.
North of the Ohio River, administrators in New Pekin, Ind., are adding metal detectors, surveillance cameras and reinforcing windows on school buildings.
Kentucky lawmakers convened a task force on school safety. And already this year, officials at the Kentucky Center on School Safety say they have traveled to more than one-third of the state’s counties to meet with local school leaders.
“We have done more training than we ever have before in our center,” said Jon Akers, executive director of the organization at Eastern Kentucky University.
The initiatives come after a massacre last February in Parkland, Fla., where a gunman killed 17 high school students -- the second-deadliest school shooting in U.S. history. That occurred weeks after a 16-year-old sophomore shot and killed two students and wounded more than a dozen others at Marshall County High School in Benton, Ky., in January.
It’s all part of what superintendents interviewed by WDRB News say is their most important task: making sure their students are safe in schools.
Over a roughly three-month period from January 23 – the day of the Marshall County shooting – through the end of April, there were nearly 300 threats at Kentucky schools, Akers said. That figure was “sky high” when compared with previous years, he said.
The center advocates for a wide range of ways to address school violence, from adding law enforcement officers who receive specialized training to better relationships between students and teachers.
There have been 17 school shootings thus far this year, the most for any single year on record, according to a Washington Post database created to fill a vacuum in federal recordkeeping.
“It’s one of those things that’s anybody’s worst nightmare,” said Oldham County Schools Superintendent Gary Schultz. “As much as you do, if somebody’s intent on doing damage, they can try to do damage.”
New security force at Louisville schools?
Jefferson County schools used a cadre of 29 contract workers called school resource officers, or SROs, last year.
But as JCPS officials toured similarly sized school districts like Austin, Texas, and Jacksonville, Fla., in the spring, one thing became apparent: Both districts maintain their own security.
JCPS may join their ranks, Superintendent Marty Pollio said.
“We are, as a district, behind what is happening in many other districts,” he told WDRB News. “… All of these districts around this size had their own school officers that they train, that they provide the training. They provide specifically what they want. They look for a certain type of security officer that is going to interact with kids and be a teacher in many ways.”
He said such an initiative, which he estimated would cost more than $6 million, would allow the district to train, monitor and evaluate its security officers.
During the 2017-18 school year, JCPS provided officers in schools under contracts with the Louisville Metro Police Department, the Jefferson County Sheriff’s Office, St. Matthews Police Department and Jeffersontown Police Department for up to $674,000.
It was a Jeffersontown police officer who used a Taser to subdue a Jeffersontown High School student after the teen allegedly attacked the school’s contract officer that prompted some in Jefferson County to call for the district to call for changes, including the end of uniformed, outside officers in schools.
But Pollio said those officers have a place in the school setting.
“As I’ve said many times in our school board meetings, I’ve been around some of the best,” he said.
The Jefferson County Board of Education heard a report on Pollio’s plan for JCPS to hire its own security force during its meeting Tuesday.
Pollio said the district has tasked school administrators to evaluate their schools’ security measures, such as ensuring that external doors lock correctly; safety plans; and training programs. This year, a team will visit each JCPS school to review security and safety, he said.
“That’s a critical component to make sure that we have 155 principals focusing on safety, knowing what they’re doing, speaking to their staff, training their staff and making sure that all staff members have that training that they need,” he said.
JCPS provides security improvements as schools are renovated, and Pollio said that’s part of the district’s long-term planning.
“We’re in the process of doing that right now, and our most significant changes to those will take place in ’19 and ’20 when we talk about facility improvements and staffing,” he said. “But I think a critical component is making sure schools are doing all the right work throughout the year.”
Watching the halls
In late May, a student opened fire at Noblesville West Middle School in Noblesville, Ind., injuring a teacher and student, who both survived. Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s office announced in July that the state would provide handheld metal detectors to schools across the state, one for every 250 students enrolled.
East Washington School Corporation in New Pekin, Ind., was among districts that received free metal detectors through Holcomb’s initiative. East Washington Superintendent Dennis Stockdale said he expected to receive eight new metal detectors.
Mere days after the Marshall County shooting, the district shut down its three schools after receiving a generic threat of violence. The district instituted random bag searches at its middle and high schools following the threat, something Stockdale says will be aided by the additional metal-detecting wands.
On top of the new handheld metal detectors, the district’s board has authorized several security improvements at its schools that cost nearly $500,000 over the last two years.
Stockdale said schools there added about 60 security cameras, and secretaries there have access to hidden panic buttons that alert authorities and send camera feeds directly to the Washington County Sheriff’s Office.
“That’s a huge benefit,” Stockdale said.
External and internal doors in the district’s schools are locked and accessible through key fobs, and Stockdale said East Washington received a matching grant that will help the district cover school windows with shatterproof film.
“We’re really confident that our kids are much safer today to start this school year than they were last school year,” Stockdale said.
Stockdale says the response he’s received from parents on the security changes at East Washington has been positive.
“They want us to continue to do our due diligence, to continue to look to improve, to not be complacent, to not be satisfied, to always look at what can we do better and look at those things every day,” he said. “That’s what they’re expecting. I’m sure they’re always going to have questions and concerns, and we welcome that. If parents have questions or concerns about the safety of their children, we want that conversation.”
The district has spent about half a million dollars on security improvements, but Stockdale says there’s always a need for more funding to make East Washington schools safer.
“There’s all kinds of things that we can do with training and things, and dollars will help do that,” Stockdale said.
New school security officers
Schultz, the Oldham County superintendent, said district and law enforcement officials there began huddling to explore ways to improve safety in their schools shortly after the shooting in Marshall County.
Their consensus: More police in schools will help make the district’s schools safer.
The Oldham County Board of Education voted July 23 to add seven school security officers in the 2018-19 school year to supplement the three school resource officers currently patrolling the district’s 19 schools. The SROs are Oldham County Police officers who have received specialized training to work in schools, district spokeswoman Lori McDowell said.
Six of the new officers will come from Oldham County Police and the other will come from LaGrange Police, and the district will cover most of the officers’ salaries, which will total about $320,000 per year.
“With the three SROs and these seven additional spots, we think we can really heavily patrol the buildings and provide a level of security that we’ve not had before,” Schultz said.
The officers will be hired and trained by their respective police departments and can be called out to handle emergency situations if needed, Schultz said. They’ll randomly patrol different campuses in Oldham County, and Schultz said only he, the district’s safe schools director and the police chiefs will know those plans.
Most of the seven school security officers are retired police officers, he said, noting that the district built in time to allow them to attend any training sessions they need.
Schultz says the district is in the second phase of school security improvements. The first phase, he said, focused on building safety and was completed about a year ago. In all, security improvements cost Oldham County Schools about $7 million, he said.
“We want to make sure we get some insight from the principals as far as some blind spots in their buildings both internal and external, and so we’ll look at adding additional cameras this year,” Schultz said.
Phase three of the district’s safety plan involves ensuring that any new buildings are equipped with security systems, he said.
While some want to see an end to the use of outside officers in Jefferson County schools, Schultz said Oldham County Schools has had positive experiences with police who patrol the halls of its schools.
He called the officers “an integral part of the school community.”
“I was an assistant principal in the district when we first started adding SROs, and it was just a great thing,” he said. “The SROs that I’m aware of, they have great relationships with kids.”
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