Chris Lake succinctly summed up the concern that haunts educators in this era of mass school shootings across the United States.
“If a teacher tells you they don’t think about this every day, they’re probably lying,” the Swanton Local Schools superintendent said.
Like his fellow superintendents in Fulton County’s seven school districts, Lake struggles to understand what he calls an epidemic of violence toward students and teachers that has become almost routine. The latest incident occurred Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., where 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz, who was expelled from the school, opened fire and killed 17 students and adults.
“For myself, for my administrative team, this is the thing that keeps you up at night. It’s truly a national epidemic, a national tragedy,” Lake said.
Noting that the U.S. is the only industrialized nation experiencing mass school shootings, he added, “I have an incredible amount of frustration for our elected officials, who just won’t do anything about this. All we ever hear from them is, ‘Sending our thoughts and prayers,’ but there’s never any attempt to look at the problem.”
The Swanton school district will send a letter home to parents, assuring them security procedures are in place. The district’s Emergency Operations Plan has protocols in place for emergency scenarios including evacuation and reunification sites for students. The schools experience regular drills, and students and teachers discuss the scenarios they could face in their classrooms. They also work in conjunction with Swanton’s police and fire departments.
“It’s really a continuous process. We talk about this stuff all the time,” Lake said. “The truth is, we have put everything in place to try to deter these things from happening.”
While other factors are also present, he sees the shootings as primarily a mental health crisis among youth. He acknowledged that warning signs about the shooters’ intentions often go unnoticed.
“There seems to be holes in the safety net where we can offer help to kids,” he said. The school has student counselors, “(but) in the wider world…agencies are short on funds. We’re stretched thin. It seems we can do more in that area.
Unfortunately, Lake said, despite all the preparation, “It think it’s possible everywhere. Deep down in our hearts, we have to hope something like this never happens, but we have to assume it could so we can be as prepared as possible.”
Lake said one thing schools can do to stop the violence is create an atmosphere where students and staff alike feel comfortable bringing their suspicions to administrators in a confidential, anonymous manner. “If we continue to be proactive, to create an atmosphere where people give us warnings, we can hopefully stop these things,” he said.
Classroom doors at Archbold Area Schools remain locked while school is in session. Teachers are encouraged to report their suspicions about people, and are asked to consider what actions they would take in an emergency.
“I don’t know that I have an answer,” Superintendent Aaron Rex said about school shootings. “It’s become a huge issue. We think about it all the time.”
He suggested bullying and mental health issues among students as possible catalysts for the violence. He also believes that youths’ exposure to violent video games, television, movies, and social media programs could be an issue.
“I think society has become more numb to compassion. I think it desensitizes people for sure,” Rex said. “In society at large, people just don’t care. There’s a disconnection. You can’t go into a school and kill 17 people without a lack of feeling. I don’t think a normal person does that.”
About five times each school year lockdown and evacuation drills are held for students and staff using ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training. All school buildings use a buzzer system for entrance.
Still, Rex concedes, that may not be enough.
“Can you really stop someone with an assault rifle? That’s your worst nightmare,” he said. “You do as much as you can. I don’t know that’s there’s a 100 percent fail-safe plan. Everybody feels like they live in a community where’s it’s not going to happen. You prepare, and pray that it doesn’t.”
Wauseon Superintendent Larry Brown agrees that it’s impossible to totally eliminate the threat against schools. But he said the school district does everything possible to improve its readiness. That includes regular safety drills and reviewing building security measures. Recently, a scenario exercise was conducted with assistance from the city police department and the Fulton County Emergency Management Agency.
“We will continue our efforts to improve our preparedness for the safety of each and every student, staff member, and school community member,” Brown said.
Despite their frequency, the shootings taking place are still shocking to Pike-Delta-York Superintendent Ted Haselman.
“Schools are supposed to be a safe place fostering student discovery and learning, not acts of violence,” he said. “Unfortunately, these types of events can happen at any school across the country. If a district feels they are immune to these types of acts they are not being honest with themselves.”
To that end, safety training drills occur regularly in each school building. Visitors must be buzzed in and enter through a school building’s main office. Delta police officers frequent the buildings. And classroom doors have been installed with protection devices that prohibit entry during a lockdown event.
“While we pray we will never need to use this newly-installed tool, we know we are not immune, and having the system in place as a precaution for the safety of students and staff is important,” Hasleman said.
He said the district has adopted the saying “See something, say something,” which stresses to students to speak up if they think someone or something should be investigated
An educator for 20 years, Superintendent Lake said when his career began he never imagined that training to survive a school shooting would become routine.
“When you go into this field you do it because you like kids, you like teaching kids. You want to build relationships and help kids secure their future,” he said. “But (this is) the reality that we live in now.“
Reach David J. Coehrs at 419-335-2010.
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