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What are local schools doing for student safety?

By Lisa Brody

Nashville. Oxford. Michigan State University. Uvalde. Parkland. Newtown. Columbine.

The list is long, as are our memories, of youths who have been victims of school shootings. And as the public cries for a solution become deafening, it is left to school districts and law enforcement to fortify schools with what amounts to bandaids as prevention as lawmakers at the national and state level tussle over gun control.

If the last 50 years is any predictor – if 2023 continues as it has begun, there will be approximately 400 school shootings this year, up considerably from 2022's record high of 273, so says David Reidman, founder of the K-12 School Shooting Database, which is updated daily,

Reidman began his data collection in 1970 and has observed an increase of gun violence since 2018. His data shows that there “have already been more shootings, with more victims, so far in the first three months of 2023 than during the same time frame last year.”

The Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit group that catalogs incidents of gun violence in the United States, defines mass shootings as having four or more victims – either injured or killed – other than the shooter. As we know, schools are not the only target of this form of gun violence. Angry and disgruntled former employees shoot up banks, factories, concerts, malls, department stores, grocers. Racially-motivated shootings have forever marked churches, synagogues, mosques, as well as grocery stores, malls and anywhere disturbed and irate individuals decide to take out their grievances – with firearms, almost always legally purchased. And often times the weapon involved was an AR-15, an assault rifle designed to be used by U.S. soldiers – one that has been used in every conflict our country has been in since Vietnam.

Between 2009 and 2018, there were 288 school shootings in the United States, according to the Washington Post. Since the Columbine High School massacre, more than 349,000 children have been exposed to gun violence during school hours, and children commit more than half of the country's school shootings. When the shooter has been found to be a juvenile, 86 percent of the weapons were found in the homes of friends, relatives or parents.

“We're at a watershed moment right now,” noted Congresswoman Haley Stevens (D-Birmingham, Bloomfield Hills, Bloomfield Township, most of Oakland County). “We're running up against a culture that's changed even since the last century, that was tied to guns. I'm going to be black and white – I'm against assault weapons. We have rights – but we also have responsibilities.”

Stevens noted that she is a firm believer in our elected Congress and the “435 people who get elected to make it work. But what I have seen as a federal lawmaker – I have seen a culture that refuses to do something as simple as background checks, safe storage laws, red flag laws – it is refusing to reinstate the assault weapons bans, which expired at the end of last century. We did do a simple gun law around around mental health and a loophole. But where Washington fails to act is we're not finding creative solutions to this problem.

“The last two years has been the deadliest for young people,” Stevens continued. “Gun violence is the leading cause of death for those 21 and younger. Why? It's a psychological reason. Someone has an axe to grind and they use a gun to settle scores.”

President Joe Biden and Democrats are pushing for funding for a gun agency. In Biden's proposed budget increase for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives for fiscal year 2024, he is seeking $71 million to implement a 2022 law to address gun violence, passed in response to the shooting in Uvalde. The law requires more thorough background checks for gun purchasers who are younger than 21, and helps implement “red flag” laws, which are a tool law enforcement and others can use when someone has shown they are at high risk of doing something dangerous with a firearm, but cannot be arrested because no crime has yet been committed, explained Amy Barnhorst, a psychiatrist and violence prevention expert at University of California Davis Health.

Republicans, citing defense of the Second Amendment, are fiercely opposed. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-Ohio), House Judiciary chair, said he planned to make the case for a Republican bill to outlaw the 2022 gun violence law. He told congressional reporters on the day of the Nashville school shooting, “Democrats are going to turn this tragic event into a political event.”

In late March, in light of the shooting at Michigan State University, Congresswoman Elissa Slotkin (D-Lansing), along with Congressmen Ed Markey (D-MA), reintroduced legislation that would fund research at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to better understand and address the nation’s ongoing gun violence epidemic. The Gun Violence Prevention Research Act would authorize $50 million each fiscal year over the next five years to boost the CDC’s firearms safety and gun violence prevention research.

Slotkin also introduced the No Crime Left Behind Act, which would prohibit the transfer of a firearm to a person who has been convicted of a misdemeanor in which a firearm was used, carried, or possessed, for three years following conviction; and the Pause for Safety Act, which would require a one-week waiting or “cooling off” period before a person may receive a firearm.

“Gun violence is now the leading cause of death among American children, and in Oxford and at MSU, I’ve seen the long-term pain and trauma these tragedies inflict on entire communities,” Slotkin said. “These bills take concrete actions to make it harder for people to commit acts of violence with a gun. As elected officials, our most basic responsibility is to protect our children from the things that are truly harming them, and this package of legislation will help us save lives by addressing some of the root causes of the gun violence epidemic.”

Stevens pointed out that the rest of the civilized world does not have the same kind of gun violence, notably in schools, that the United States has.

“It's not acceptable collateral damage because of a doctrine (the Bill of Rights) that was written when there were powder guns,” Stevens said. She said many of her views have been informed by talking to parents and others in her districts who say “that those who want to do harm cannot have access to guns. We have to have restrictions. I still want people to exercise a version of the Second Amendment – but we're being oppressed by constant instances of gun violence because we choose not to have gun safety. I know too many people who have survived school shootings.”

Michigan lawmakers have finally passed some measures to regulate more thoroughly gun possession and other bills are still pending. But in the continual wake of school shootings, the most relevant local question is how do schools fortify buildings and campuses without becoming fortresses and scare the very students they invite in each day?

Both Birmingham Public Schools and Bloomfield Hills Schools have hired full time security directors in the last year to assist police liaison officers as they transition from COVID-19 protocols to create safer environments in light of the Oxford High School shooting on November 30, 2021.

Downtown Newsmagazine also queried local private and parochial schools for their safety and security protocols. There was no response to numerous inquiries to Detroit Country Day School, Brother Rice High School or The Roeper School.

“Cranbrook Schools takes the safety of all of our community members – students, families, faculty, staff, and visitors – very seriously. We continue to work closely and on an ongoing basis with our law enforcement partners at the local, county, state, and federal level to ensure we are meeting and exceeding all established best practices. However, we refrain from public comment regarding our physical security infrastructure and practices in order to safeguard such vital information from being used to circumvent our overall goal of providing a safe and welcoming environment for all,” responded Clay Matthews, director of communications, Cranbrook Schools.

“Sacred Heart Emergency Preparedness is a priority. The Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) is comprehensive and is reviewed by third-party partners regularly. Our EOP plan provides tactical responses in the following areas: systems, training, and relationships with our community’s first response partners. A risk assessment is routinely performed and the Emergency Operations Plan is updated accordingly and then implemented and managed daily by Sacred Heart security personnel,” said Augostino Visocchi, director of community outreach, Academy of the Sacred Heart.

Karen Huyghe, director of communications for Bloomfield Hills Schools, said “BHS hired an Administrator of Public Safety, Patrick Sidge, who is a retired police sergeant with an extensive law enforcement background and as a school liaison officer. Sidge will work in collaboration with district and school administration to review and establish appropriate guidelines, procedures, and plans to ensure safe and secure schools. Among other responsibilities, Sidge will regularly review and update the district’s Emergency Operations Plans (EOP), work with our technology team to manage security camera systems, and serve as the district’s liaison to work collaboratively with local law enforcement partners.”

She said Sidge has extensive training as a school resource officer, training in non-violent crisis intervention, Safe Schools, FEMA preparedness for educational facilities, critical incident preparedness/response for K-12 students, and ALICE training. Both Bloomfield Hills and Birmingham Schools utilize ALICE – Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate – in conjunction with Bloomfield Township, Birmingham, West Bloomfield and Beverly Hills police. Huyghe said all staff and students have been trained to the ALICE protocols over the course of the 2022-23 school year.

“The lesson we learned from Columbine is don't wait to go in. The lesson we learned from Sandy Hook was don't hide in bathrooms, because there's no escape route, and we're sitting ducks. Oxford – we learned that the ALICE protocols worked,” said Aaron Morandini, district director of security for Birmingham Public Schools. “We saw the classroom lockdowns worked, students escaped through windows – it prevented him (the shooter) from getting other students or teachers.

“I've been around a long time and done a lot of training, and you never know what works, and hopefully you never need to use your training, but we saw it really worked,” Morandini noted.

Morandini said his position in Birmingham is a new one, created last year out of a recommendation from a security audit to be a liaison between local law enforcement and the district. Previously, he worked for the Dearborn Police Department, most recently as a school liaison officer, where his specialty was in training. “ALICE is very well known – I'm a big proponent of it. ALICE offers a lot of options for student and teachers. Unlike in a fire, each situation is different. It's difficult as adults, because lockdowns are new to us and it causes anxiety. But it's not as hard on students.”

“What has changed for us, there is someone who is focused on the security of the schools,” said Birmingham Police Chief Scott Grewe. “From our standpoint, it's nice to see the schools are focusing on security, working with us and acting as a point of contact for us.”

He said the Birmingham Police Department also provides assistance to various local private and parochial schools – “but it's more of assistance. We do active training for anyone. Every school or business in the area. Some request that we look at their emergency operation plans, and we'll review those with them, to see what they should focus on and improve. It's up to the schools to provide the security – we just review the plans.”

Whether public, private or parochial school, “We're here to assist the school, parents, students and district, and we'll do anything we can to make sure schools are safe,” he said.

Huyghe said BHS has a school security officer, Officer Marisa Miller, and a school liaison officer, Officer Kelly McGraw, from the Bloomfield Township Police Department who work collaboratively with local police departments, staff and administration. “Officers Miller and McGraw routinely visit our schools and outdoor properties. They are particularly active in school functions engaging both staff and students. It is through these interactions that meaningful and proactive relationships are established,” Huyghe said.

McGraw said in addition to ALICE training, if there any criminal issues or any juvenile complaints outside of school, she often handles them. She gives presentations at the high school and middle school on social media and minor in possession. To younger students, she talks about school safety, not only drills but walking to school, bus safety and stranger danger, which can include dealing with non-custodial parents.

McGraw noted that ALICE training includes principles and training that can be taken into private life, and they do training for office buildings, “and can be used for grocery stores, hotels, religious institutions, as well.

“The biggest battle we fight is overcoming the sensitivity of feelings it brings up,” McGraw said of the school training, which the closer incidents have gotten to home, as in the Oxford and now MSU shootings, “We have to be very careful about whatever traumas these trainings can bring up, for both a student or a teacher. We're doing more due diligence for both staff, students or parents – if they lash out in an email, things we'd push aside, now with OK2SAY coming in, where we're encouraging student and staff to report things anonymously – now we're doing threat assessments as a team, law enforcement and schools together – to do assessments.”

She said currently with threats, “You never know what could be real or just anger.”

“Schools are a reflection of society, so if you don't like your school – look at your society and your family and all the other things in your society which infiltrate the schools,” noted Dr. Amy Klinger, director of programs and co-founder, Educator's School Safety Network, and professor and director of educational leadership program, Ashland University. “The breakdown of accountability and responsibility today – it's much easier to perpetrate it with a gun and say it's someone else's fault.”

McGraw concurs. “The biggest thing is the words people use that contains a violent threat – they may just be spouting out. The person hearing doesn't know the full context, and the person spouting doesn't think about the full consequences. So we're always going to investigate. Better to do our due diligence and be on the side of caution. That's a change – at one point it was blown off. I've been an officer for 20 years. Our reality is not what we thought it was 20 years ago, and we're getting more training. As a department, we're getting more mental health training.”

Bloomfield Hills Schools is addressing the mental health crisis, adding social workers in all of their schools. They said they hired two additional school social workers in fall 2021 to further “enhance the district’s commitment to health and safety providing full time social workers in each school. Two programs, Mental Health First Aid and SafeTalk, have been introduced to Bloomfield Hills Schools staff members to share potential warning signs of a student in emotional distress and provide ways to provide additional support or immediate intervention. We are also continuing with the PrepareU mental health program in all grade 9 health classes,” Huyghe said. In 2020, a health and wellness nurse was hired for the district, providing staff education and guidance on issues related to school health, follows-up on health concerns, supporting students with emergency plans for medical needs and addressing student specific health concerns.

BHS also utilizes therapy dogs, and intends to have one therapy dog for each school building. “The research around therapy dog programs indicate changes in self-esteem, self-confidence and decreased levels of anxiety. Studies also show children’s attitudes toward attendance, school work, and overall sense of belonging at school improves,” Huyghe said.

Oakland Community Health Network has launched the Youth & Family Care Connection (YFCC) program designed to meet the mental health needs of youth 17 and younger. Services include triage for a behavioral health crisis, resources, and care coordination. Oakland Community Health Network said local youth can receive services on the unit for up to 72 hours as determined by a mental health screening and based on capacity.

Klinger noted gun violence “doesn't just happen spontaneously, when they go from being fine and normal to being an active school shooter. Ninety-eight percent of past shooters had at least three adults who were concerned about them before the shooting. When we only focus (training) on active shooting drills, you're making them less the same because you're not focusing on all the other issues of violence. You're not preparing students for the 95 percent of other problems of violence, medical emergencies, non-custodial parents, accidents, suicides, drug overdoses” that occur in and around schools. She said students are not being trained for the things they are most likely to encounter.

“Systematically, I don't see a lot of changes. Schools, in the wake of the pandemic, have taken their eyes off the ball because there are so many demands on them,” Klinger said. “As long as it is only a gun conversation, with one group being 'right' and another group being 'wrong,' we'll never make progress, and as a community right now it's more important to show that the other group is wrong. It's impacted governance, family relations, interpersonal interactions. School violence is just a mirror of what's happening in our society.”

In the last few years, both districts have come to voters for sizable bonds, which were approved, each of which included security and technology upgrades. In 2019, residents in the Birmingham School District approved a $195 million bond proposal to address facility needs and funding enhancements through 2026. Included in the bond were security system and technology enhancements.

In 2020, those living in the Bloomfield Hills Schools District approved a $200 million bond proposal to support school renovation, additions, security and the movement of some school populations. The $200 million bond included safety and security upgrades at all schools.

What physical upgrades have been implemented in the two districts to provide greater security to prevent the possibility of a school shooter? Huyghe said in BHS, “Our secure entry systems include video door access and remote door lock capabilities. The system improves the management of access to our facilities before, during and after school hours. Video security systems provide interior and exterior coverage and will improve live and forensic monitoring of the buildings. Within the 2020 bond program, BHS will be upgrading door hardware and safety capabilities and our secure vestibules will include security glass.”

In Birmingham Schools, Morandini said all schools have locked doors and entrance cameras to view visitors in order to allow them in – or to prevent them from entering. He said the district is currently updating and adding more cameras to all schools.

“Since I arrived in October, we've applied for and received a grant from the state for critical incident mapping,” Morandini said. “With this, we can have updated maps to the buildings shared electronically with our police and fire departments. It provides a 360-degree view, in real time, of the buildings they're entering. It would be very useful for us for evacuations.”

He said they are also upgrading their visitor management system, which is practically in the horse and buggy era.

“Right now, when visitors come in, they sign in with paper and pencil,” he chuckled. With the new technology, “We will be able to scan their ID, run a quick background check and print out a visitor badge with their picture on it, all electronically. It will let the school know who is in their building in real time.”

Birmingham Police Chief Grewe noted that most Birmingham schools “were built long before active shooters were a consideration. They have more open spaces and common areas. As these schools are doing renovations, they're looking at how to improve their security issues.”

Another addition with Moradini is Birmingham Public Schools joining OAKTAC – the Oakland County Tactical Response Consortium, a group of 40 member law enforcement agencies first established in 2009 to prepare Oakland County in the event of a major incident requiring a mutual-agency response. OakTac law enforcement consortium uniformly trains and exercises using shared resources to strengthen overall preparedness capabilities.

Oakland County Sheriff Michael Bouchard works and coordinates with all the departments in the county via OakTac. “We all train together. If something happens in Birmingham or Beverly Hills – they're small, but they're near Royal Oak or Southfield or Troy – whoever gets there first can work together seamless without creating a plan. They have all trained together and know exactly what to do.

“Time means death, and every second counts,” he noted. “If an officer from one department arrives at the same time as an officer from another department, they can work together seamlessly because they've trained together. We have to be on the same page to go after the threat without waiting.”

Bouchard acknowledged that today, there are more threats to all kinds of institutions than ever before.

“We're averaging one to five threats against a school a day,” Bouchard said. “There are so many layers to that onion, from the breakdown of the family, parenting, mental health. Once schools were safe – maybe kids had a fist fight instead of weapons. Now, there's a desensitivity to violence, a lack of guardrails to behavior when they're kids, as well as greater mental health needs. We need training and policies and resources that match today's security risk.”

Among those are new gun bill laws, said Bouchard, a Republican former state legislator.

The new Democratic state legislature has passed new gun laws in March, motivated by the shooting in February at Michigan State Univeristy, focused on safe storage of guns, universal background checks and emergency risk protection orders (red flag laws).

The safe storage law would require gun owners to keep weapons locked or unloaded around minor children. The emergency risk .protection order would allow loved ones or law enforcement to ask a court to temporarily order the removal of guns from an individual who is at risk of harming themselves or others.

“Extreme Risk Protection Orders are proven to save lives by giving family, law enforcement officers, and judges a tool to temporarily seize firearms from those who are an immediate risk to others, or to themselves,” Sen. Mallory McMorrow (D-Birmingham, Royal Oak, Huntington Woods) said in a release. “By enacting ERPO laws in Michigan, we can save lives and protect people from that pain and grief."

Universal background legislation, part of the 11-bill gun safety package passed by the Michigan Senate and expected to be signed into law by Governor Gretchen Whitmer, would require anyone purchasing a rifle or shotgun to undergo a background check, which is currently only required for handgun purchases, and to register for any firearm purchase.

“Enough is enough; our legislature should have taken action decades ago to prevent gun violence. Now is the time to tackle the issue. These bills will help prevent gun violence by implementing universal background checks on all gun sales, mandating the secure storage of firearms and allowing citizens to file extreme risk protection orders. These bills are a first step toward ending gun violence in our state,” said state Rep. Sharon MacDonell (D-Birmingham, Troy) in a release.

“The legislation that has been voted on – polling shows that the vast majority of Michiganders support safe storage, background checks and extreme risk protection order,” said Birmingham resident Kelly Dillaha, state program director, Red, Wine & Blue, an organization which empowers women at the grassroots level. “Our coalition is made up of gun owners, faith leaders, educators, students, parents, physicians – all fighting for the same thing because we've all seen it from different vantage points. We keep saying we want change – we can make changes to buildings that are reactionary, but if we can intervene before something happens, it gives professionals a change so it doesn't happen in the first place. The aftereffects of gun violence are traumatic – not just for the person shot, but for everyone in the vicinity.

“Today what makes a building safe is that we have passed the gun violence prevention legislation that matches what we want to have happen in the schools,” she said.

Rudy Patros, president of Securatech, a locally-owned full service security firm, said his company can provide another layer of physical and electronic security in schools – and he believes schools have unused bond money to purchase it.

“There are no local districts that can lock all the doors of a school down – but we absolutely could provide it, as well as a lot of other features,” Patros said. “They'll lock all all the doors manually and leave the door or doors that has that feature to be locked automatically. The goal is to keep the kids as safe as possible.”

He said they are working on trials for school districts right now, and offering it to local districts. The new technology has software which can detect a gun on someone, or even in their pants. The software technology has shot detection capability, he said, “if there is a gunshot nearby the school, it can trigger a lockdown, it can notify the authorities, depending on the protocols, that we would work out.”

Another innovation Patros said bulletproof film on doors and windows, which Securatech is partnering with the manufacturer, which he said will “stop or slow down the person from kicking in a door and allow time to get law enforcement there. If a shooter does get in, it slows them down.”

Some law enforcement were not in favor of it because students could have difficulty kicking in windows if they had to evacuate.

“The way to prevent a school from being a fortress is technology,” said Patros. “If there is technology, it's best to utilize it. Nothing is ever perfect, but if we can prevent one school shooting, we're succeeding.”


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