In today’s world, student safety is a top priority for East Lansing schools

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Vehicle passes by in front of East Lansing High School. Photo by Jack Kirwan

When it comes to school safety, parent Kath Edsall rarely speaks to her children about the issue.

Edsall currently has five children enrolled in East Lansing Public Schools, with three more already graduated, she leaves the responsibility of educating her kids about safety up to the schools they attend.

“I don’t want to panic my children, you know I’m not going to have them paranoid and scared to death about every little boogeyman,” Edsall said.

“I’m not going to panic them about weapons in school, the school is doing what they need to do at this point in time and I hope for a day when we don’t have to have lockdown drills,” Edsall said.

“I think (the schools are) doing everything that we need to do right now, you know my kids say they’re practicing,” Edsall said. “I hope someday we don’t have to do lockdown drills anymore.”

Parents stressed that school safety goes far beyond just security within the walls of a school.

“I feel like school safety goes beyond metal-detectors and locked doors,” said Karen Hoene, a parent of an East Lansing student.

“I feel like school safety is about having relationships, students have relationships with teachers and being in an environment where if they’re having struggles it will be recognized by someone,” Hoene said.

“I think we’re doing a really good job in East Lansing, we’ve got our mental health advisory board that we’ve started, we’ve got a lot of new student clubs with a lot of great conversations happening, so I think we’re moving in a great direction,” Hoene said.

Some say the direction has always been the same. “I think safety has always been important in schools,” said Mary Ellen Vrbanac, an elementary school teacher in East Lansing.

Still, trusting the security is paramount. “I think parents depend on schools and the adults in the schools to ensure that their kids are safe so it’s our responsibility to provide a safe environment for students,” said Dori Leyko, the superintendent for East Lansing Public Schools.

“We’ve been consulting with our school resource officer, other experts on school security, and we’re looking at enhancements on our current buildings,” Leyko said.

Front entrance to East Lansing High School. Photo by Jack Kirwan

Leyko explained that the school district does not publicize their specific emergency procedures in the interest of safety, but she did stress that the district has strong protocols in place.

“(Safety procedures are) pretty consistent across the district but they do allow for flexibility in judgment and teacher’s decision making,” Leyko said. “When there’s a lockdown drill our students are in the classroom and they stay out of sight, but if there was a class outside and there was an issue inside the building we wouldn’t bring our kids back inside, the teacher would have the flexibility to make a different decision for his or her kids based on the information they may have.”

One important way students are kept safe through the presence of a school resource officer working on campus on a daily basis, Administrative Lt. Chad Connelly of the East Lansing Police Department touched on this officer’s role.

“Our school resource officer is a full time position assigned to the schools, and essentially he investigates any crimes that occur within the schools that need to be investigated, he also acts as a liaison between law enforcement and the school district,” Connelly said.

In addition to providing protection for students should trouble arise, a school resource officer can help students to feel more comfortable in school by putting a name and face to the police officer that is in the school on a daily basis.

“They provide frankly a sense of security and in some ways to the staff and students alike, tends to reduce fear of crime and fear of disorderly problems,” said David Carter, a professor of criminal justice at Michigan State University.

“They take the mystery out of who the cop is, they take the mystery out of who this law enforcement officer is whose a symbol of authority,” Carter said.

“The officer really gets to know individuals, so that presence on an ongoing basis breeds familiarity with the officer, (Students) get to know them,” Carter said.

When it comes to school safety, there is a strong relationship between  the physical and mental components of student safety can go hand in hand.

“Obviously we’re here for students’ education, and that is always going to be important, but kind of one level above that would always be student safety and that’s physically and mentally,” said Nick Hamilton, assistant principal of East Lansing High School.

Info from www.nea.org. Graphic by Jack Kirwan

“The safety for our students physically and mentally is always going to be the top of the list, and then everything else, academics and all that stuff falls underneath that, so obviously it is the most important thing,” Hamilton said.

“To us there’s really the two sides of safety, the mental health side of it, and then obviously the physical,” Hamilton said.

“When we think about the prevention of violence in schools we think about schools being a really critical place for students to feel connected and supported to their school community,” said Kristin Rispoli, an assistant professor in the department of counseling, educational psychology, and special education at MSU.

“Schools can always be thinking about students feeling physically, psychologically, and environmentally connected and safe, so thinking about the physical environment, is that an environment that’s welcoming and open to students no matter their particular beliefs, values, or appearances? Variables like that,” Rispoli said. “Do they feel psychologically connected to their school environment? Are teachers making an effort to create relationships with students to make students feel accepted? Is there a positive school environment where students are getting along with others where there are positive discussions happening?”

One big factor in keeping students engaged and in a good mental state is building strong relationships between teachers and students.

“The student-teacher relationship is really important for students for a variety of reasons, certainly to promote positive mental functioning for students, it’s also important for promoting academic success of students as well,” Rispoli said.

Rispoli also touched on the importance of knowing signs that students give off that may suggest that they’re in need of some help.

“Students who are withdrawing from social interactions or withdrawing from their schoolwork, if there are major changes in appearance or potentially conflicts in relationships that are coming to the forefront those are all signs,” Rispoli said. 

“Any major change that the student is displaying that is not consistent with their previous behavior is a signal that something might be happening, so it’s important to connect with the student, find out what’s happening, and point them in the direction that can help them if they do indeed need support,” Rispoli said. 

Although East Lansing Public Schools have firm protocols in place already, they are always looking to ensure that they are doing right by their students and making sure they stay up to date with safety measures.

“I think it’s something that because student safety is something that’s a high priority for us, it’s something we’re going to continue talking about”, Hamilton said.

One way that the school district works to keep its students safe is to have a great working relationship with ELPD.

“We work directly with the East Lansing Police Department, we have a very close relationship with them,” Hamilton said.

East Lansing resident walks past ELPD vehicles. Photo by Jack Kirwan

“We’ve always had a very good time working relationship with (East Lansing Public Schools), in my career here I can think of very few times when there was any discord or any lack of cooperation on both parts to try to get good resolutions for whenever issues came up,” Connelly said. “We’ve always had a very solid working relationship.”

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