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Wednesday, December 19, 2012

School Safety Keeps Evolving

In 1989, when I began teaching at a suburban Nebraska high school, local suburban schools did not have the need for security guards.  Just a few years later, our district felt the need to hire one guard.  I don’t recall what precipitated that choice.  It was not a traumatic event.  At that time, our guards didn’t wear uniforms.  He wore just a street shirt and jeans.  His job was to create relationships with the students and to keep his eyes and ears open.  Students usually addressed him by his first name.

Today, I work in a different suburban Nebraska high school, but within the same school district where I began in 1989.  In our school,  there are four full-time security guards and one full-time school resource officer.  In addition, we often have an extra police officer on campus thanks to a safe schools grant.

Still, security is an issue in every school.  A determined intruder can find a way in.  Most of the time, shooters are students and would not be questioned unless they are acting sketchy.  Likely, their weapon would be carefully hidden. 

At Millard South, it was a student who killed vice-principal Vicki Kaspar and injured the principal.  He walked right in, though suspended, because he belonged there.  No one realized what he brought with him.

At Sandy Hook, their security procedures didn’t help.  Apparently the gunman forced his way into the building.  He was obviously determined to kill.

Is it even possible to make a school 100 percent safe?  My workplace has about 2,500 students.  That is a large number of people walking the hallways, similar to a population of a small town. Though it is a high school,  each student is in reality a kid who wants to feel connected.  As teachers, most of us feel connecting with our students surpasses the curriculum.  Studies show that students learn better if they feel connected to their school.

Placing metal detectors at each door opens up a Pandora’s box of problems.  The image of kids standing in line to have their backpacks searched and their bodies patted down depersonalizes the environment.   What kind of relationship is a student going to develop with the guy who wands him everyday?

In addition, the lines to enter the school, to go through the metal detectors and send backpacks through x-ray machines would take time away from learning.  In fact, funding security devices would keep money out of the classroom.

Our security staff spends much of their time simply talking to kids.  Knowing each student helps diffuse potential problems.   Within any school, it is essential for a student to have one strong connection with an adult staff member.   Connected students are more likely to let an adult know of a potential problem before it erupts.

I have never had a student become violent at school, or later in life, without showing signs of mental illness, depression, or gang involvement.  Several years ago, a mentally ill student of mine assisted his friend, another troubled student, in carrying out his mother’s murder.  There were many signs the helpful friend was not right, and school personnel were trying to get help for him.  One day he came to class with R A P E spelled out on his knuckles.  Another time I found a journal entry where he wrote of his fantasies of killing his sister. 

After the murder, investigators found he manipulated his friend into carrying out the act  He finally received mental health help from the state after his friend was sentenced to jail.  My student finally was admitted to a mental health facility after his parents made him a ward of the state.  This was the only way they could fund the serious therapy he desperately needed.

Now there is talk of arming teachers.  That is another Pandora’s Box.  I will not carry a gun.  We have an armed school resource officer on the property.  I will leave that duty up to him.

I will tell you what I would like to happen to make me feel safer at work.  I would like to have a door that locks from the inside during a lockdown.  As it stands now, I need to walk out into the hall, lock the door, and have a student let me back into the room.

I have a window on my classroom door.  I would like to have blinds on the door that can easily be closed during a crisis.  Also, I want a lockdown “survival” kit for my classroom.  They cost too much for a school like mine to fund one for every classroom.

When my friends at Millard South were in lockdown during the shooting incident, many of their students had not had a bite to eat since lunch the day prior.  The lockdown started during lunch hour and lasted for several hours.  Students were starving and had a desperate need to use the restroom.  Lockdown kits would take care of both issues in an emergency.

At my school, our security staff works very hard.  I would also like to see school security officers treated as professionals, not as minimum wage hourly workers.  They should earn a salary, determined by education and experience, so schools can hire the best of the best, specifically retired police officers.

School safety is as complicated as the gun ownership issue.  Arming teachers is not the answer.  Security can always be enhanced.  It is too bad that it is necessary.

Photos courtesy of


  1. Very good common sense things Sandy. Is this something that MEA can take up?

  2. Good question, Lynne. Which issue? Door locks or security personnel?