File photo by Thomas Franz

Local educators, experts discuss evolution of school safety

By: Nick Mordowanec | C&G Newspapers | Published July 9, 2018


CLINTON TOWNSHIP/MACOMB TOWNSHIP  — Chippewa Valley Schools Superintendent Ron Roberts said keeping students safe has never been a higher priority. Dealing with evolving school threats involves thinking both inside and outside the box.

On June 19, the school district hosted a town hall meeting via phone, in which parents and guardians could listen in on the findings of a recent districtwide security analysis related to security and best safety practices. 

The speakers included Roberts, Chippewa Valley Schools Board of Education President Beth Pyden, Macomb County Sheriff Anthony Wickersham and Brian Smilnak, security consultant and architect for Wakely Associates Inc.

Roberts said the analysis included building-by-building assessments, maintaining the things the district already does well while also implementing new safety measures. 

The district has one school liaison officer — at Dakota High School — who also serves schools in Macomb Township as needed. An arrangement with Clinton Township police exists in the district’s southern half. Moving forward, the discussion involves adding officers in both ends of the district.

“School safety continues to evolve, and our district must continue to adapt,” Roberts said.

Smilnak said the analysis dissected aspects like physical barriers inside school buildings, studying each building’s capability to prevent unauthorized entry — and if it occurs, how to deal with it in a swift but scrupulous manner.

His company examined everything from exterior doors and buildings’ main entrances to interior vestibules, corridors and classroom doors.

“Overall, we did find that the district does many things well in each of these areas,” he said.

However, security threats still exist. With the constant flow of students at both Chippewa Valley and Dakota, the challenge involves creating better barriers for the staff to take control if necessary — all while not making students and faculty feel like they’re in a war zone.

Procedures such as electronic key entry, locked doors during school hours, limited entrances and surveillance cameras have been in place for years. Smilnik said the analysis involved looking primarily at worst-case scenarios.

“It’s been a real challenge for us in our profession to design a higher level of security into the arch of school buildings, while still maintaining an open and inviting experience. … The last thing we want to do is create a concrete bunker,” he said.

Live polling of listeners revealed that 93 percent of those who participated deemed school safety as a “very important” topic of discussion. In terms of enhancements parents would like to see, outside barriers, stronger classroom doors, more panic buttons and more cameras, were favored by 40, 30, 14 and 15 percent, respectively.

Wickersham said working hand in hand with the district pays dividends, allowing for the engagement of students and staff. His department has been particularly busy since the shooting in Parkland, Florida, when some local students began to post threats via social media.

In total, since Feb. 14, approximately 42 school threats from five school districts were vetted, investigated and deemed either credible or not. 

“This is a communitywide discussion, not just related to parents and guardians,” Wickersham said. “After all, strong schools make strong neighborhoods.”

Roberts said educators’ jobs are to educate, but he acknowledges that times are different. Often, it starts at home and parents having that conversation about what is commonplace and what is out of bounds.

Smilnak said “school resource officers are worth their weight in gold.”

Pyden said the analysis has “begun a conversation” that parents and guardians are already having. They want to prevent a dangerous scenario before it actually occurs.

“The comprehensive building-by-building analysis shows us we can build on our record of school safety,” Pyden said.

Finally, many parents might ask: What do we do about social media?

The technology is so ubiquitous that Roberts is quite aware of the challenge, calling students’ phones essentially an extra appendage. He hopes the relationship students have with school personnel is strong enough that they would speak up if a threat existed.

“Over time, students have learned to take this more seriously,” he said.

Wickersham said some situations get turned so upside down, as individuals who were, perhaps, bullied start making threats to defend themselves and attempt to intimidate their abusers. As he put it, “The person who really needed the help becomes the suspect.”

“That’s what starts these investigations: They send a message that’s inappropriate and triggers what we think is a threat to the students, threat to the school. … Everything you do on that device, it has ramifications,” Wickersham said.