By Catherine Ferland
Holt Journal Staff Reporter
While studies still support the idea that a child is safer in school than they are in a car, the rising rate of acts of violence in school still raises red flags for some.
Acts of school violence can occur anywhere and can have many different causes, making them difficult to track and study.
So what can schools do to stay safe?
For the Holt School District, most doors are locked with security cameras. The school resource officer, Mary Hull, a local deputy, is on-call for the district’s eleven different buildings.
Visitors to the school must speak to an intercom at the locked front door where they are asked for their purpose for entering the school, after which they are let into the school. Visitors are asked to stay in a secured lobby area until the appropriate administrator comes to them.
“I’ve been in Holt public for 20 years and in the early days all school doors were propped open but over the years with more school violence that has been flipped and we have to be more prepared,” David Hornak, the superintendent of the Holt School District said.
Hornak said that increased school security started back after the Columbine shootings, but continued to grow as the number of school shootings increased.
“School safety is a very important thing and we need to make sure that stays a focus point for us,” he said. “Do I want to trust everyone? Absolutely. Can we trust everyone? Nope.”
Horizon Elementary school has adopted The Boot, a steel plate that can slide into small holes in the floor behind the classroom doors to prevent someone from entering. Hornak installed them in the classrooms of Horizon when he was the principal.
But the boot isn’t in every school in the Holt district. Hornak said that it’s a decision that each school makes on it’s own and not a district-wide initiative.
Hull also said that while the Boot is very effective, a few of its downsides make it difficult to put into each school.
“It’s a fire hazard,” she said. “The other problem is we don’t have the key in our patrol cars, so if the office is locked there’s no way to get a key. There’s always a downside to everything.”
Holt teachers receive annual emergency training including how to administer an EpiPen and how to handle different safety threats like a chemical spill, a tornado or other natural disaster or an active shooter.
“We have filmed lockdown drills. So in the event that someone is in the hall and we hear gunshots, we will lock the doors and take cover and we have protocols to go with that. So I believe we have a good handle on our emergency drills,” Hornak said.
In addition to the annual training, each classroom has a packet of information with instructions on what to do in each circumstance.
Despite the preparedness of the Holt district, there is still one concern that parents have about safety: the students who walk back and forth in between the two high school campuses for their classes.
Jody Anderson has been living in Holt for 28 years and has had four children go through the school system. Her youngest, twins who are currently seniors at Holt High School. The students are part of the split campus plan.
“I am not happy about them moving from Main to North campus from first to second hours and then back fifth to sixth hours,” Anderson said. “I have concern about all the students who move back and forth each hour.”
The front doors of the two high school buildings are unlocked, allowing students to easily walk in between the buildings to get to class, but raising concerns for parents. The rest of the doors of the high school are locked.
“Most school districts are trying to keep buildings safer a semi lockdown system, but with students moving all hours, this needs to be addressed in our district,” Anderson said. “It just makes it that much easier for an outsider to gain entrance to the Main or North campus. Valid points have been brought up to the administration and fallen on deaf ears.”
“I don’t see a big concern because there’s cameras and there’s someone in the office who’s watching the doors and there’s security right in the commons,” Hull said. “If someone walks right past the attendance office their right on them anyway.”
But for Dr. Scott Poland, a licensed psychologist and nationally recognized expert on school crisis, youth violence, school safety starts at prevention.
Poland has identified several factors that can lead someone to decide to open fire in a school, the biggest being mental health. School shooters are often psychotic, or lacking in a basis of reality, psychopathic, lacking in empathy or conscience or traumatized, the victim of bullying or abuse.
Poland said that teachers and parents can be on the lookout for warning signs.
“An extensive review of the literature and my professional experiences have taught me that school shooters often leave behind a host of warning signs preceding the attack,” he said. “But sadly, such warning signs are often overlooked and even discounted. This constellation of warning signs often.”
In addition to anti-bullying efforts to create a safe atmosphere for all students, Poland said that parents and teachers need to pay more attention to a child’s behavior and take changes in behavior very seriously.
“The research has found that school shooters are not simply normal kids but are kids with identifiable mental health problems who have exhibited many warning signs of potential violence and this knowledge highlights the need for everyone to be alert to warning sign of violence and the need to increase mental health services for young people both at school and in the community,” Poland said.
Hornak said that the elementary school students are instructed about the school’s visitor policy.
“They are taught that if a teacher works here, they have on a badge,” he said. “If there is a visitor, they have on a visitor badge. If they see someone in the school without one of the those badges, we wouldn’t want them to confront that person, but tell the nearest adult what they saw.”
For the middle school and high school students, there a program called OK 2 Say, where students can text, call or email anonymously to share any threats that they hear with the Michigan Police.
Hull said that the calls that she typically gets to the school are no different than any other high school.
“The problems were periodic possession of marijuana or someone brought a weapon to school, not to hurt someone, but they forgot they had it,” she said. “And then of course there are the fights.”
Hull said that fights tend to be more about boyfriends or girlfriends, and less about any extreme cases of bullying.
“The kids are so good about coming and reporting to the school that they’re being bullied or reporting it to the parents,” she said.
But Hull still stressed the importance of parent and student engagement in order to promote safety.
“Parents need to talk to their kids about being safe,” she said. “What are they going to do? It’s not meant to scare them, it’s just meat to bring up a discussion and teaching moment for kids. K-12, talk to them about what to do in an incident at the school. It could be any natural or manmade disaster. It could be an act of violence. We need to talk to kids about it so that they have a plan.”