Safety a priority in USD No. 113
Every act of school violence reignites a local, statewide and national discussion of why this violence is occurring and how to prevent it. In the past month, the threat of school violence has hit close to home.
First at Axtell, then at Marysville and Nemaha Central schools, threatening messages were found in bathrooms, leading to school lockdowns. Students have been arrested and charged with criminal threat in the Axtell and Marysville cases.
Even before the situation at Axtell, USD No. 113 Superintendent Todd Evans said he had been in talks with district administrators and area law enforcement about additional safety and security needs and training.
The day following the lockdown at Axtell, Superintendent Evans communicated with district staff.
“The recent school attacks have increased the focus on violence in our schools,” Superintendent Evans wrote in an email to staff. “We know that in USD 113 we are not immune to the potential of school violence. It is important for us to be vigilant on a daily basis regarding safety.”
USD No. 113 has a number of safety procedures in place at each of its district buildings, as well as a crisis plan in place for a variety of possible crisis events.
“While we do have district wide policies, these must be tailored to each building,” Evans said. “Each building is designed different and has different strengths and needs.”
Superintendent Evans said all three Sabetha buildings and Axtell have buzz-in processes at their public entrances. This includes video and voice capabilities, which office staff then use to review whether a visitor will be allowed to enter. At Wetmore, all visitors enter through the main office before being admitted into the student areas.
Hall monitors also are assigned to keep track of what is happening in the hallways. Board Member Kent Saylor asked if hall monitors have walkie talkies to communicate. Evans said that they do not. However, Evans said, the administrative team will be looking into communication options for crisis situations.
All other doors to the buildings are to be closed and locked at all times, he said. At the March meeting, Board Member Jeff DeMint asked whether the locked door policies were being strictly followed. Evans said this is something that is being stressed to staff and students.
Additionally, a security video system is in place at Sabetha High School. The school board approved the implementation of this system late last year.
Evans was asked about communication within the schools and with students.
A big thing the district is doing with students is social and emotional education through the MTSS process, as well as supporting positive and expected behaviors, Evans told board members.
“We have a method of identifying kids who are struggling,” Evans said. “That is a big step from what we had in the past.”
Evans said he was not aware of exactly what information had been shared with students regarding what types of speech and behavior constitutes a safety concern and should be reported to an adult.
SHS Principal Sheri Harmer told board members during Monday’s board meeting that she had gotten information and shared it about the consequences for making threats.
Board Member Ed Reznicek Reznicek asked if the teachers or building staff have been having discussions.
Axtell Principal Jayson Tynon told board members that, after the incident in Axtell, many questions were brought to the surface and they were working through solutions.
The better everyone can be informed, that is more people who have their eyes out, Reznicek said.
“We need to do a better job of communicating with our staff,” Evans told school board members. “We think we know what teachers should know, but we need to be more thorough.”
Evans said he did not believe school administrators had communicated with parents in general about risk factors and behaviors to flag, since it was understood that most incidents of school violence are not without warning.
“We do communicate with parents when we have specific concerns about students, but we have not done so in a generalized method that I am aware of,” Evans said.
While the district has many positive processes in place, Evans said, each building admittedly has areas of safety concern that need to be evaluated, and he said he recognizes a need to continually improve.
One step that has been taken to increase safety involves law enforcement. Beginning March 1, schools in Sabetha and Wetmore have had a law enforcement officer present prior to school and during the first hour of school, Evans said.
“This effort was spearheaded by [Nemaha County] Sheriff [Rich] Vernon,” Evans said.
Additionally, he said Axtell would be working with Marshall County law enforcement to see if they also can develop a similar arrangement.
Board Member Jim Scoby said he visited with Sheriff Vernon, who indicated he has some ideas of what he could do for the schools. It would involve putting a School Resource Officer in each school, J. Scoby said, but would require funding support from the school districts and the county.
While armed law enforcement officers are permitted at schools, a national conversation continues to include the idea of arming teachers or other staff members to serve as a deterrent.
In 2013, the State of Kansas enacted legislation that would allow schools to permit teachers, administrators or other school employees to carry concealed guns on school premises, subject to numerous conditions. However, soon after that legislation was passed, EMC Insurance — which provides insurance to more than three quarters of Kansas public schools, including USD No. 113 schools — issued a statement that it would decline any new business from schools that permit guns, as well as not renew business with any existing customers that chose to permit guns. The insurer cited liability risk as the determining factor in the decision.
Now, that stance has shifted according to information obtained through the district’s insurance agent, Evans told board members Monday night. EMC Insurance has said it would review on a case-by-case basis any school client that allowed guns on campus. This review would include reviewing documentation of training and certification of the person carrying the weapon, along with likely added premiums for the insurance coverage.
“It’s not something that we would want to see, but at the same time we are tasked with keeping our kids safe. That is one option,” J. Scoby said.
Another way the district is responding to recent incidents is to provide additional training.
Director of Student Learning Jennifer Gatz reported to the school board that, at the next district inservice, staff would be receiving information from a School Resource Officer who currently serves Royal Valley High School.
“The SRO will be reviewing with our staff procedures for responding in a crisis situation,” Gatz told board members. “He will also provide suggestions as we review and revise our current crisis plans in each building. We take the safety of our students very seriously, and we feel this training will help us be proactive in responding to crisis situations.”
Another way the district will be responding, Evans said, is to re-evaluate the district’s current crisis plan and consider ideologies that have emerged since the plans were last updated.
Superintendent Evans told board members that, while the district has a crisis plan, it was designed to be very simple. However, he has come to the conclusion that there is “no way to have a good plan that is that simple.”
One big thing the district will be looking into is putting together a more comprehensive, specific plan, he said.
“I do not feel I have the pieces of the puzzle yet to put together a concerted plan, but I know we will do this,” Evans said.
Superintendent Evans said the topic is on the agenda for the upcoming administrator meeting, in addition to the upcoming teacher inservice.
“What can we do now? Stay calm. Focus on the facts,” Superintendent Evans said. “Help kids by being vigilant about bullying. Continue to build positive relationships with kids.”
Anyone who sees or hears of behavior that indicates a danger to the person or others, it should be reported to someone who can investigate the matter — whether this is law enforcement, or a school administrator.
The Kansas Highway Patrol has a Kansas Safe School Hotline that is answered by a live person 24 hours a day, every day of the week. This toll-free hotline is a joint effort between the KHP and Kansas State Department of Education, to give students, parents and community members the opportunity to report — anonymously — any impending school violence.
The Kansas School Safety Hotline number is 1-877-626-8203.
Amber Deters116 Posts
Amber Deters is Co-Editor of The Sabetha Herald, where she has been on staff since 2005. She specializes in school board, election and legislative reporting, as well as photography and page and advertising design. Amber is a 2005 Kansas State University graduate with a degree in journalism and mass communications, print journalism sequence. She lives in Sabetha with her husband and three children.