Community comes together to discuss school safety
Parents joined teachers, school administrators and first responders for a Community Safety Forum at Woodford County High School on March 13. Last week’s public forum took place in the wake of mass school shootings at Marshall County High School in western Kentucky and Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. In response to the two school shootings, which claimed the lives of 19 students and teachers, the executive director of the Kentucky Center for School Safety told those at the forum that “a lot of well-meaning people have come up with solutions to fix our schools.” Jon Akers cited backpack checks, installing metal detectors and arming teachers as some of the options being discussed to prevent school violence, but said he agrees with Woodford County schools Superintendent Scott Hawkins on how to make schools safer. One of the best ways to prevent a school tragedy from ever occurring, Hawkins told forum attendees, is establishing a school culture where students feel comfortable talking to an adult “if something’s not right.” He said students will know about something before adults do because they’ll see it on social media or hear about it during a conversation. Also, he said parents need to know what and who their kids are involved with “and you’ve got to keep up with their social media presence.” In addition to those preventive measures, Hawkins said the district has an anonymous tip line on its website so students can report anything they see or hear that concerns them to school officials, who can then investigate the issue and deal with it. Other efforts to prevent school violence include having secure entries into all school buildings and school resource officers at the middle and high schools, Hawkins said. Law enforcement officers had more of a school presence in the days after the recent school shootings, he added. While responding to questions, Akers and Hawkins talked about how to make schools safer by doing simple things like locking an interior door, which will prevent or at least deter someone from entering a classroom. “The first line of defense,” explained Akers, “is the exterior doors and then the next one would be your interior doors.” He said the most recent school shootings sparked numerous copycat threats across Kentucky. School board Chair Ambrose Wilson IV began last week’s forum by telling parents, “I can assure you there’s no issue to us that’s more important than safety of your children and the safety of our employees when they go to school every day.” Hawkins echoed Wilson’s feelings in his opening remarks. “The safety of our students has been, is and will continue to be the number one priority in this school district. We take that job very seriously,” he said. One person at last week’s forum urged the district to employ the services of a school resource officer in every school – not just the middle and high schools. Hawkins said that’s a viable option for the school board to consider moving forward, but also pointed out that the local police department can have officers at a school in Versailles in less than two minutes and officers at Midway’s Northside Elementary in four minutes. Having more school resource officers has “been discussed before and it’ll be discussed again,” Wilson said. According to Akers, there are 271 school resource officers in Kentucky’s 1,233 public schools. The salary of a fulltime police officer, including pension and health insurance costs, is about $100,000, according to Versailles Police Chief James Fugate. That salary could be greatly reduced if legislative action allowed SROs to be classified as a seasonal employee, Woodford County Sheriff John Wilhoit said. Besides having two school resource officers, Hawkins said Woodford County schools has trainings for teachers so they are better able to identify warning signs in students, who may need the help of a school guidance counselor and/or social worker. Schools are required to have emergency plans, which are reviewed annually. Schools also practice lockdown and other drills during the school year, he said. One parent voiced concern when she and others at the forum learned that WCHS has not had a school safety assessment from the Kentucky Center for School Safety since around 2007, which she described as unacceptable. The limited number of teams (five) with the Kentucky Center for School Safety responsible for doing the assessments should not be an obstacle when it comes to school safety, she said. While WCHS has not had a school safety assessment in several years, Principal Rob Akers said his faculty and staff participate in annual trainings on climate, culture, positive behavior interventions and supports, suicide prevention, crisis management, and most recently, a training on trauma informed care for students.