FPS, officials speak out on Florida shooting, emotional aftermath

By: Sherri Kolade | Farmington Press | Published February 26, 2018

FARMINGTON/FARMINGTON HILLS — Whether it has been a day, a month, a year or more, grief has no time limit, and neither does the struggle to make sense of the senseless.  

A day after 17 people at Florida’s Stoneman Douglas High School died at the hands of a shooter with an AR-15 rifle Feb. 14, Farmington Public Schools Superintendent George Heitsch said in a community letter that FPS is “deeply saddened.”

“Our hearts go out to all of those affected by this senseless tragedy,” Heitsch said, adding in the letter that the safety in all FPS schools is a priority. “Over the years, we have developed security measures to help ensure a safe and secure environment,” he wrote.

Heitsch said in the letter that FPS has instituted a secure entry procedure within all of its schools. In order to enter during the school day, a person must be “buzzed” into the school.

“As we’ve done bond improvements, this entry procedure has been improved to ensure direct access into the office upon entry,” Heitsch said.

Voters in the Farmington Public Schools district approved a $131.5 million, two-series bond proposal in 2015 to allow the school district to address facility and technological improvements, as well as updates and improvements in security.

The bond is also providing secured vestibules and integrating the existing camera systems and buzzers.

The first bond series is being spent on buildings that are being utilized to the fullest extent, and the second round will go toward central office, transportation and maintenance projects, among other things, officials said.

FPS staff must carry identification badges — functioning like electronic keys — which Heitsch said helps to maintain limited access to FPS schools.

Panic buttons were also added that “communicate immediately with law enforcement in the event of an emergency,” he wrote.

“Our district also has a close relationship with our local police, fire and public safety departments,” Heitsch wrote.

Heitsch said that “embedded” school liaison officers are stationed at each of FPS’ three comprehensive high schools, and they are assigned to support all of the district’s schools.

“We have found our partnership to be key in both responding to events and, perhaps more importantly, preventing problems before they happen. Additionally, our liaisons support crisis planning, school drills, and provide advice to our schools related to safety and security,” he stated.

Heitsch said that while the physical safety of students is important, making sure their minds are safe is also vital.

“Throughout our system, we have restorative practices facilitators (secondary), social workers and psychologists whose roles are to help students resolve conflicts and learn strategies to resolve situations through nonviolent, positive behaviors,” he stated. “Knowing that social media and technology are key components in how our students and families communicate, we have worked in conjunction with Michigan’s OK2SAY program.”

Inspired by a Colorado school safety program after the Columbine High School massacre, OK2SAY’s goal is to stop harmful behavior before it occurs by motivating students to report threatening behavior to authorities who can help.

In December 2014, the Farmington Hills Police Department, the Farmington Public Safety Department and FPS launched a 24/7 tip line that students can call or text, and they can email or fill out an online form at www.michigan.gov/ok2say.

The program allows for confidential tips on bullying, threats of suicide and more.

Farmington Hills-based counselor/therapist Bettie Williams, with Healing Waters Grief Therapy, said in a phone interview that young people who grieve — whether for a loved one or from a school shooting — process things differently.

“Some children may go into fear mode and don’t want to go to school in fear that something may happen to them,” Williams said, adding that it is crucial for parents to sit down and have a conversation with their child about the child’s feelings.

“And it is important that the teachers in the classroom just open up a dialogue. ... They can certainly allow students to express how they feel.”

Williams added that “holding it in” is the worst thing a person can do, because unresolved grief can materialize in other ways and impact grades and more.

“If a teacher sees that a child in the classroom is having a particularly difficult time, reach out to the school counselor and make the counselor aware. … Contact the parent and do what is necessary,” she said, adding that adults should provide an open, uncritical ear to students. “Kids have to feel that their concerns are being taken seriously and they are being heard, because that is the process of healing as well.”

Parents who are grieving or who need to talk could also request an after-school group where other parents with the same concerns can meet with a licensed professional, she suggested.

“Everybody gets the opportunity to speak about (their) feelings and emotions,” Williams said.

Robert Sheehan, chief executive officer of the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan, recently published a report that discusses looking at “the real causes of gun violence in America, as these tragedies continue to arise.”

“Together, we must bravely discuss the real actions needed to dramatically reduce gun-related violence in our country,” he said, adding that his report is not about an argument for or against gun control. “I am calling, as are many others in the mental health and public safety arenas across the country, that we stop derailing this difficult but sorely needed examination by scapegoating, in the wake of tragic mass shootings, those with mental illness, while doing nothing to address this nation’s gun violence nor its mental health needs.”

Sheehan said he mourns for the victims of the “senseless violence” in Florida and other high-profile killings.

“I, along with many across the country, want to ignite a conversation. A conversation around the real causes of gun violence and around the need to stop scapegoating those working so hard to live with and recover from mental illness,” he said.

For more information, go to www.oaklandchn.org.

For additional resources, visit the American School Counselor Association at www.schoolcounselor.org.

Staff Writers Brendan Losinski and Tiffany Esshaki contributed to this report.