Is Nevis School equipped to handle an event like the recent school shooter in Florida?
That question was the topic of much discussion at Monday's Nevis school board meeting.
Two approaches to help prevent that type of tragedy were discussed: mental health services to help students before they commit such an act (see inside story) and ways to enhance security in the school building.
Armed guards and other options
School board member Justin Isaacson shared concerns about some children and teachers not feeling safe in school.
"With the way things are changing, we really need to look at how we're protecting ourselves and our children," he said. "I am not at ease with having my kids in a public school. I really think we need to address this and open up the dialog because if we get caught off guard and are vulnerable hindsight is 20/20 and 'coulda, shoulda, woulda' is not going to cut it if you're missing your son or daughter. We want to do everything we possibly can. I know there will be expenses with this, but at what expense is a human life? If we could invest $100,000 or $200,000 and we might have prevented something horrific from happening I think we should look at some of the options."
Isaacson also addressed teacher concerns and the option of having armed volunteers at the school.
"I've been approached by some teachers who would like the right to carry and conceal," he said. "I don't want guns in the school more than anybody else does and it's unfortunate the times that we're living in. Twenty years ago, when we went to school nobody even thought of this stuff and we didn't have to worry about it. Do our kids worry? How can you not? How easy is it and how able are you to learn when you are frightened? I would like to have Survey Monkey done for the students and staff in the building just to see if they feel safe here."
Board member Gary Stennes said some of those questions were included in a recent Minnesota Schools survey a week ago, but the data has not yet been compiled.
The idea for armed volunteers is something Isaacson said came from the community.
"I've had a lot of community members approaching me who are either former military or law enforcement who would be willing to periodically come in," he said. "Obviously, they would have conceal and carry permits and the qualifications that would be needed. Not that any of us want to see armed guards at the school but we have armed guards at government buildings and they're protecting valuable assets, people. Our most valuable asset is our children. I think all these little schools all over the nation are just ripe for the picking."
Other options Isaacson shared with the board were as follows:
• A vestibule area where people could come in, be asked their intended purpose, possibly pass through a metal detector at the same time, and if everything cleared out be allowed to enter the building. If not, the vestibule could lock and contain them.
• An alert system similar to the fire alarm so if anyone sees someone with a gun coming in they could pull the alarm to let everyone in the building know to go into lockdown.
• Adding more community members to the school safety committee.
Board member Larry Smith agreed school safety is a concern.
"What we just heard earlier (in the mental health presentation) is that 21 percent of students have some form of mental illness," he said. "There is a need for early intervention. Almost all of the school shooters had some form of mental illness. Now do we become armed camps in lockdown or do we trust ourselves to be a civil society? It's a matter of where you want to spend your resources. Do you want to spend it in the classroom helping people and giving them the resources of staff training to make us aware of who to identify? I would argue also that I don't believe there are any concerns in our community right now. I don't see that here. I'm certainly not aware of it. You've raised some valid points and they're well worth discussion."
"I think it would be very reasonable and prudent to put funds toward those things," Isaacson replied. "I want more community involvement to work towards getting some of these things implemented. It's not like we're wide open here, but if someone was determined to get in at a different point of entry than the front door they could."
Superintendent Gregg Parks thanked Isaacson for his input.
"You've brought up a lot of good ideas," he said. "I do think the nationwide conversation is about safety for our students. There's the perception that it's not nearly as safe as it was once upon a time for students in America. I think we've made some pretty aggressive steps with the ALICE (Active Shooter Response Training) program and suggest we continue along those lines and use the safety committee to develop what are the next steps for us. I think that some of these are very do-able. Some of the items I don't know if we could ever get there. Asking for (armed) volunteers from the community puts us in a very precarious position. I don't know if we can get to that point. I do think starting the dialogue is important."
Ed Becker, a former school board member who lives in the district, said with regards to keeping students safe, schools need to be proactive and "see it coming."
"There's a huge appetite in the country now to take a strong look at what we're doing in public schools," Becker said. "There's a lot of talk about mental illness, how to identify those people. A huge number of times after the fact a lot of people say they've seen it (a school shooting) coming. So, as a community, if we're proactive we need to know what are the procedures, who do we call, is there a hotline somewhere, how do we sound the alarm."
"It may be a kid that felt wronged somewhere along the way and it's their solution for getting back. It's a huge issue....how do we get the most bang for our buck? No one seems to have the silver bullet, but there's a lot that could be done prior to the point where you have to put metal detectors and armed people in a building," he said.
"On the other hand, they're at the airports, they're everywhere else," board member Gary Stennes said. "They've become part of society."
Stennes asked student representative John Merila to share the view of students on the issue.
"Do the students know support procedure? Do they feel comfortable?" Stennes asked.
"To an extent," Merila replied. "All of us know we can go to (teachers) to bring these issues forward, but depending on the situation, it's difficult because we don't want to bring something up and find it's not the case. I haven't seen any situations where I feel there was a full-on risk, but in a lot of situations people don't really want to bring something forward because if there's not a real reason they'd feel bad."
Isaacson asked about whether students are concerned about the repercussions of reporting. "It's definitely a part but it's not a large part," Merila said.
Isaacson asked Merila if he feels safe in the building. He said personally he does.
The board discussed the possibility of federal funds to address the issue of school safety.
"I do want to point out that we've come a long way," Parks said. "We now have two entrances open instead of eight. We're not to the point yet of badging people in but the next step was identifying a specific, proactive way of dealing with an armed intruder in the building. That's the ALICE system that we have in place."
Parks said all teachers have completed ALICE training and trainings are scheduled for the rest of the staff. He encouraged board members who haven't already done so to complete the ALICE training online.
"There's a lot of really salient points that came out of the training," he said. "One of those is the percentage of shooters that come from inside the building: 86 percent," he said. "So you could have all of the armed guards at the front door or at all entrance points and it's simply not going to work. We need to have the ability to act at the time of crisis versus sitting back. The other piece is the time. In the shooting event that took place in Florida, it was six to seven minutes in its entirety. If you look at all 200-plus events that have taken place, by going through the ALICE procedure we're creating time to allow the police, the trained professionals to show up and deal with the situation. We've started the process. Is it perfect yet? Absolutely not. I invite you to continue along with this and we'll definitely take it up on the safety committee and continue to look at ways to keep working on it. One of the things in being on the defense is never stop improving your situation. That's how I look at student safety.
Stennes said he thinks having better communication through alarms or cell phones to let students and staff know of safety issues in the school would not cost a lot but could save lives.
"A couple things that wouldn't cost a lot is the alarm to speak to everyone at the school at one time. The other thing is using students cell phones to get alerts. Do we have that capability? Communication is a big thing, according to the ALICE training."
"We're building that," Parks replied.
"It's going to be a multi-faceted deal," Isaacson said."As long as we can keep the discussion open and keep working towards being more secure here, that's great."