• By Lisa Brody

Local school safety: how well prepared are we?


When Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold planned and implemented the complex attack on Columbine High School on April 20, 1999, in Littleton, Colorado, by first setting off a fire bomb in a small field about three miles from the high school in an effort to divert fire and rescue personnel to that site, before they went on a shooting spree at their school that left 12 students and one teacher dead and another 24 injured before committing suicide, many of us were shocked at the idea of a school massacre. Schools were believed to be safe zones for children – and the biggest threat was thought to be talking to strangers. But in actuality, that is not true. Since 1990, there have been over 32 school shootings at schools where at least three people have been killed or injured. Rather than being an anomaly, the shootings have escalated since Columbine. There have been thousands of school shootings, and thousands of students killed and injured.

In 2000, a six-year-old shot another six-year-old in Flint. A 13-year-old honor student who had been sent home from school in Lake Worth, Florida – for throwing water balloons – returned to the school with the family's pistol, and shot his teacher dead. One after another, shootings accumulated all over the country through the decade, until April 16, 2007, when 33 were murdered and another 34 injured at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, commonly known as Virginia Tech, by a student before committing suicide.

The nation gasped, proclaimed itself horrified, that it needed new gun control and mental health measures – and lives resumed as before. Dozens more killings occurred at schools across the country, until December 14, 2012, when 20-year-old Adam Lanza first shot his mother with firearms she had legally purchased, and then drove to Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, and shot through the safety glass entrance installed, killing the school principal, psychologist, four teachers, and 20 first grade children before turning the gun on himself.

Conversations regarding gun control and school security initiatives escalated in the aftermath of the country seeing six- and seven-year-old children slaughtered in their elementary school in a matter of minutes. Schools around the country, including in Oakland County, began installing surveillance cameras in and around their schools, consistently locking all of their exit doors, and demanding that all visitors, including parents, enter through one door and sign in at the office.

Yet those moves have still not been enough. Since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary, there have been dozens more school shootings around the United States. Some have been confrontations between students, or students and teachers. Some of the shooters have been students, or former students; some have been disaffected adults. Some have suffered from mental illness; others have been incidents of domestic violence with others caught in the cross hairs. Many more attacks have been thwarted by tips or reports before a shooting could take place, law enforcement confirm.

And then, on February 14, 2018, came what is now known as the Valentine's Day Massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. A 19-year-old former student, Nikolas Cruz, who had been expelled due to disciplinary issues, shot and killed 17 people and injured 14 others at the school using a semi-automatic weapon purchased legally, after activating a fire alarm. Cruz blended in with students when fleeing the building, although he was captured by law enforcement officers in an adjacent residential neighborhood after first stopping at a McDonald's.

Just as Columbine was not the first school shooting – the first is believed to have been the Enoch Brown School Massacre in Greencastle, Pennsylvania, on July 26, 1764, with nine students and one teacher shot – Marjory Stoneman Douglas will sadly not be the last in the United States. In fact, there already have been other school shootings since, including at Central Michigan University on March 2, 2018, in Mount Pleasant, Michigan, when a student killed both his parents with a gun he had hidden in his dorm room, when they came to take him home for spring break.

Many do believe the conversation is finally changing following Parkland, largely due to activism on the part of students who survived the massacre. A nationwide student protest on March 14, when students across the country, including locally, walked out of school for 17 minutes to both honor the 17 lives lost at Stoneman Douglas and as a response to stop the continued school shootings. Locally, many schools supported the right of students at the high school and middle school level to peacefully walk out on school grounds if they chose. On Saturday, March 24, March for Our Lives, a nationwide protest in both Washington DC and across the country, has been planned as both a memorial and protest, by student organizers along with the non-profit organization Everytown for Gun Safety, demanding action from Congress to ban assault weapons, require universal background checks before gun sales, and pass a gun violence restraining order law that would allow courts to disarm people who display warning signs of violent behavior.

“We applaud peaceful student activism and are proud that the conversation about school safety is being led by the students themselves. We encourage students to be civic leaders and participants and respect their right to free speech,” Bloomfield Hills Schools' superintendent Rob Glass wrote in a memo regarding the March 14 walkout. “Bloomfield Hills Schools respects students' First Amendment right to peacefully assemble, and we will not discipline students for the act of protesting as long as the protest remains peaceful and does not present a material or substantial disruption to the learning environment...Bloomfield Hills Schools is a public entity, and as such, we do not engage in these in protests. The role of our staff during these events is to keep students safe.”

Dr. Daniel Nerad, superintendent of Birmingham Public Schools, advised parents that the district supported students’ right to walk out, and for any students who chose to, staff would direct them to a designated area to gather safely. “Our Birmingham police will be present on campus at this time for the sole purpose of ensuring student safety,” Nerad wrote parents. “Administration and counselors will be present for the duration of the walkout for supervision and safety purposes. Teachers will remain in their classrooms, and classes will continue as scheduled.”

Beyond activism, some state legislators are working to bring change. State Rep. Robert Wittenberg (D-Huntington Woods), who is also the chair of the Gun Violence Prevention Caucus, introduced a “Red Flag Law” in June 2017, which would permit a court to temporarily prohibit someone from buying or possessing a firearm if he or she has been determined to be a threat to themselves or others, has been stalled in the House's Judiciary committee.

“We call it the Extreme Risk Protection Order,” Wittenberg said. “We introduced the bill (House Bill 4707) and sent it to Judiciary, and the chair, Rep. Jim Runestad (R-White Lake)," said he was willing to discuss the proposal.

Wittenberg said that after the Parkland shooting, he called Runestad, who said he'd look into it again, and Wittenberg said he's cautiously optimistic – especially since Gov. Rick Snyder said his administration is studying “best practices” to combat gun violence, and is supportive of red flag legislation, as long as it's done with due process.

Rep. Runestad did not return calls for comment, but has still not scheduled a hearing. Instead, on February 26, Runestad announced that he planned to introduce legislation that would train school employees, including teachers, to use firearms for emergency purposes. On his Michigan House' website, Runestad stated that the bills would allow secured locations of locked firearms in undisclosed locations in school buildings, and that the program would be optional. It is expected to be taken up in the Judiciary committee during the month of March.

In an email to constituents, Runestad wrote, “My plan would allow for the establishment of school marshals who would perform a function similar to the air marshals that protect flights.They would only use frangible ammunition that breaks apart upon impact, helping prevent bullets from traveling through walls and into other classrooms.”

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard is a big supporter of Red Flag laws – and less so on arming teachers. “Red Flag Laws allows for the intervention with due process for law enforcement, to intervene before it moves from discussion and posts to action,” he said. He noted that would incorporate improving the mental health system.

“Many (shooters) have been off the rails, and the cuts to the system are short-sighted. If the individual is off the rails, the repercussions to society are low, but to individuals it can be high. Like at Sandy Hook, the Colorado theater shooting (in Aurora, Colorado), Virginia Tech – most of those cases never got to law enforcement before they flipped,” he noted.

Dr. Michelle Riba, associate director of the University of Michigan Depression Center, agrees with Bouchard. “There is not enough funding – but there is good screening. We do know many kids are expelled – but then what? Many are left unsupervised. He's still a human being. What about follow ups? Doctor appointments? We see children whose parents are there, and you have to drill down, and see there are families where guns are there. There's great impulsivity. We in the mental health industry, just as we ask new parents about car safety, or biking, roller skating and lacrosse helmets, we need to be able to ask about guns and gun safety. We know there are accidents, especially in homes where they are unsupervised.”

Having the ability to ask and have follow up – which Red Flag Laws could accomplish – would potentially remove an individual or guns from a home “where it could be potentially lethal in the wrong hands,” she emphasized.

As for arming teachers, as a law enforcement officer, Bouchard said, “There will be ideas on both sides that will not get done,” he noted. “Instead, focus on the middle, on the things that can get done. There used to be Secure Our Schools, which allowed for grants to harden our schools. Proven best practices have fallen by the wayside. We talk about increasing school liaison officers – but we lost a ton in 2008-2009 – reinstate those people. Sheriffs and liaisons in schools, who are fully-armed and fully-trained, yes. And the biggest is the canary in the cave: those relationships you build are invaluable.”

Certainly, educators and administrators are concerned and are continually working to update their school safety and security plans in light of school shootings and threats, of which there have been more than 700 copycat threats just in the two weeks after the Parkland shooting. In the metropolitan Detroit area, there have been numerous school threats, including a Canton teen who is facing two charges of terrorism threats and two counts of bomb threats, after students at Canton and Salem high schools found threats written on bathroom walls. He is being held on $250,000, no 10 percent bond. A Clinton Township teen was given a $150,000 bond for posing a threat to Chippewa Valley High School. A Green Oak Township teenager is being held on a $10 million bond after he threatened to shoot up S. Lyon High School. Guns and ammunition were found in the home of a Utica High School senior who made a social media threat, and he has been charged with making a terrorist threat or false report of terrorism, and given a $75,000 bond.

“In the past three weeks, there have been 20 reports of students using social media to make threats against schools, and 17 students were charged,” Macomb County prosecutor Eric J. Smith wrote on Facebook on March 13. “Many of these threats turned out to be made by students who claim they were just joking or making a prank. I want to be very clear: these threats are not a joke, and this behavior will not be tolerated.”

Oakland County Chief Deputy Prosecutor Paul Walton said their office has had 19 to 20 reports as well since Parkland, although not all of those have resulted in charges.

“We have been going out to schools to talk about the danger of making threats,” Walton said. “I personally have gone to S. Lyon schools four times. Before, we were talking about bullying and making threats. Now, we've flipped that, and say, if you want to say something and get attention, you can't. You could be facing a 20-year felony as an adult, or as a juvenile, you could be adjudicated until you're 19. It could affect the rest of your life.”

Smith said each of the 17 defendants have been charged with false threat of terrorism or threat of terrorism, both of which are felonies, and if convicted, can carry a sentence of up to 20 years in prison. Further, students may lose scholarships and financial aid; be denied college admission; and be required to disclose pending cases or criminal convictions on job applications.

“We explain to kids the crime happens when you hit send,” Walton said. “It's false threat of terrorism. Police agencies immediately go to the home to check and see if there are weapons. Before, many schools would deal with threats or issues internally. Now, schools are reporting everything to the authorities.”

Many, although not all, local schools, have experienced threats. Bloomfield Hills Schools' spokesperson Shira Good said they received a false threat since the Florida shooting, although she declined to elaborate on specifics other than it was found to not be credible. “We treat everything seriously. It doesn't matter if it's big or small. We go through the Bloomfield Township or West Bloomfield police departments to investigate – and people would be surprised to learn how thoroughly we investigate,” Good said.

Corey Donberger, the one full-time Bloomfield Township police liaison officer to Bloomfield Hills Schools, said that if they receive a tip, regardless of how minor or severe it may appear, “we are going to follow up on it. In today's day and time, we are going to investigate. It may start at the school level, but it may become law enforcement.”

Donberger splits his time between all of the Bloomfield Hills schools, and as a full township police officer, is fully armed in case a situation warrants it.

On February 28, an online math forum used by students at Birmingham's Derby Middle School received a threat that someone had a gun and was going to shoot people. It was determined that a student's account had been hacked and there was not a threat to students or administrators, Derby principal Celeste Nowicki informed parents in an email. Then on Friday, March 9, a student at Berkshire Middle School made threatening comments to another student that alluded to shooting another student with a gun. School personnel, along with Beverly Hills Department of Public Safety, searched the student, his locker and personal belongings, and reported that no weapons or item of concern was found at school, and the student was suspended.

“At this time working with police, we do not believe that there is any credible threat to our Berkshire students and staff and this matter will continue to be investigated,” principal Jason Clinkscale wrote parents.

“With the Derby cyber threat, we ultimately have not been able to determine who sent it,” Birmingham superintendent Nerad said. “While we believe it was sent in school through a district computer, we're still determining who sent it.”

The district is continuing to investigate the Berkshire threat, and the student remains suspended.

Nerad emphasized that “school security really depends upon a strong partnership with local law enforcement – and we have that with all of our local municipalities (Birmingham, Beverly Hills and West Bloomfield). It's beyond relying – they're side-by-side partners.

“How frightening for everyone, from me to teachers to parents,” he observed of the threats. “In the time we're in, any message that is threatening must be investigated, and it does tug on people's worst fears. And messages using technology complicates things. I was upset, and I could see how upset parents were. In our world, there is plenty of room for differing opinions – but there are more productive ways to air and discuss those differences, and that is what we want to communicate with students. If we are going to be on the front of prevention – working with parents, learning how to deal with differences, character development – we also have to be on the forefront of prevention. So if they have differences, we have to help young people work out those differences in good and just ways.”

Rochester Community Schools had a false alarm threat at Stony Creek High School on March 8, leading to the school being placed on lockdown after a student accidentally initiated a lockdown procedure through the school's public address system, the district said. While they have not shared any other threats, superintendent Dr. Robert Shaner noted that the district “does not tolerate school violence, or threats of school violence, of any kind. In these instances, our schools will take strict and immediate action. Please take this opportunity to treat this event (Stoneman Douglas High School) as a teachable moment with your child. Talk to your son or daughter. They need to understand the consequences that come with making threats of school violence, but they also need to know that they are loved.”

Cranbrook Schools, situated on over 319 acres in Bloomfield Hills, said they have not received any recent threats. “We're an open campus to the public,” acknowledged Cranbrook spokesperson Clay Matthews. “We have a great working relationship with Bloomfield Hills Public Safety Department and with Oakland County Homeland Security, and we developed a map and layout of every building on campus that's a digital tool now, too.”

Calvin Vincent, director of security and safety at Cranbrook, said the open campus is one of the things Cranbrook prides itself on. “There are certain areas that are protected, that the public cannot access, and the schools are at the top of the list. We have video cameras across the entire campus, which give us eyes all over. We make sure our perimeters are secure. And we have security staff,” although he declined to answer if security personel are fully armed.

Detroit Country Day School and The Roeper School declined to participate in this article, and Academy of the Sacred Heart, Brother Rice High School and Orchard Lake St. Mary's did not return repeated calls.

Working with fully armed, full-time police liaison officers from local departments is one aspect of providing security to schools, but hardly the only one. Bouchard said county sheriffs are now in many school districts providing support. Local districts across Oakland County have dug into their general funds or floated bond millages for improvements to safety and security, as Bloomfield Hills Schools is doing at an election in May.

“Through our current bond work, all of our schools have secure front entryways. You must be buzzed into the building, state your purpose, and be routed into the office,” Nerad said of security upgrades that have occurred in Birmingham's schools since the tragedy at Sandy Hook in 2012. “We have a better idea of who is in the building at all times. We have cameras at the high schools (Seaholm and Groves), and at Lincoln Street Alternative Program. We're in the process of reviewing their sufficiency.

“Every time we have an incident (locally, or a nationwide incident), we review our safety plans,” Nerad continued. “These are living, breathing documents. Sadly, you cannot be stuck at where you were when you wrote them. You have to continually revise.”

In addition to school resource officer from Birmingham police and Beverly Hills public safety in the high schools, both Seaholm and Groves have hired unarmed private security guards, as well as staff acting as hall monitors. The officers also cycle through to the middle and elementary schools.

“In addition, we have unannounced perimeter checks six times a year, where we're checking on unlocked doors. The goal is to keep (outside) doors locked,” he said.

Rochester Schools anticipates expending $6 million through a recent bond efforts to enhance student safety and school security. Schools spokesperson Lori Grein said that efforts include redesigning the main building entrances with two sets of vestibule doors, along with a door to the office, and providing staff with a better visitor verification system and building lockdown capabilities.

“Locks that latch from the interior side of the classroom door are being added, and video surveillance cameras are being installed in the schools and on buses. An updated districtwide telephone system and public address (PA) system will also ensure proper notification and warning during an emergency.”

Since bond efforts are scheduled to take place over a five-year time period, until 2020, not all main offices in all schools have been redesigned, but she said that each school has a visitor verification system and staff has been instructed to utilize the updated safety procedures, which include requiring guests to show picture identification and sign in, documenting their name, time in and out, as well as the purpose of their visit. All exterior doors are to be locked throughout the school day, as should interior classroom doors.

“All exits and hallways should be clear of desks, materials and debris so as to allow for a quick exit in the case of an emergency,” Grein said.

“We are fortunate to have a close working relationship with our local law enforcement, security consultants, liaison officers and Oakland County Homeland Security specialists who provide us with the necessary guidance and training in order to prepare for the unthinkable,” she said. “As we review our procedures to determine the best solutions for our district, we rely on this team of experts to share best practices and make recommendations for continuous improvement. For safety reasons, we cannot publicly share specific information about our security tactics.”

Oakland County Sheriffs are school liaisons to the district. “We also utilize the services of security consultants at our high schools,” Grein said, who are contracted through Safe-Ed, and are not armed.

“Safety is a community responsibility, and we have to work together to keep our kids safe,” noted Bloomfield Hills' Good, pointing out they believe the biggest factor in keeping students and staff safe is staying aware of what is going on around them. “In 80 percent of the incidents (in previous shootings), 80 percent of the cases nationwide – no one said anything.

“This is their school, their community. We want students to think about others,” she said, pointing out it's about empathy and taking responsible action.</