School safety in 2017
More sophisticated prevention, but more complex issues

Kentucky School Advocate
October 2017
By Madelynn Coldiron
Staff writer
The team from the Kentucky Center for School Safety assessed the safety of the Nelson County High School campus in September using the basic format that’s been used since the agency’s assessments began in 2003 – steps that include checking building security and interviewing staff, parents and students on school climate and culture.

Since the Center launched the assessments, most Kentucky schools have made physical improvements with safety in mind – security vestibules, cameras, visitor identification, better student check-out procedures. A state law enacted several years ago ramped up emergency management planning and led to other improvements. In many ways, those have been the easy fixes, said Jon Akers, the Center’s longtime executive director.
School safety assessment team member Mike Blevins, a retired Boone County Schools administrator, shares a lighter moment with a group of Nelson County High school students he is interviewing, including Katye Berry. 

Less easy to address are what he says are the problems that now loom on the safe schools front, 20 years after the Heath High School shooting: social media, aggressive parents and mental health issues.

Dan Orman, who retired in 2015 as assistant superintendent of safety and security for Oldham County Schools, is among the cadre that serves on the Center’s safety assessment teams.

“We were all schooled in the art of recognizing disenfranchised kids, but the threats now have moved to social situations, often parent aggression, drugs, opioids, mental health issues,” he said. “It has really expanded.”

These issues are more difficult to address, agreed Denny Vincent, a former western Kentucky high school principal who has been doing the school assessments for more than a dozen years.

“It’s pretty easy to put a keypad on your front door and have people press a button to get into the building. It’s very difficult to deal with all of the intricacies of social media and the intricacies of mental health issues,” he said.

Social media
Dr. Jim Evans, superintendent of Lee County Schools who also helps the Center with safe school assessments, said the impact of social media on school safety has been huge.

“A post can go viral in seconds, both positive and negative,” he said. “Those things seem to make things that were bad even worse, because sometimes you don’t even have time to react to those situations. Before you get a complete story, the wrong information is out there. Then of course you’re trying to do follow-up and catch-up instead of staying out in front of it and being proactive.”
These changes have also caused safe school assessment teams to dig a little deeper in their interviews with students and staff, because bullying – the majority of it using social media – is so widespread, Vincent said.

“And we look at other climate and culture issues – are the adults there people that the kids can talk to? And this is one of the things I’ve looked at much more carefully,” he said. “The most important question, I think, that we ask kids is, ‘If you had a personal problem that was really bothering you, or if you saw a safety issue here at school, is there an adult here that you would go and talk to about it?’”

This connectivity is important, he said, since a common thread among school violence is the perpetrator told someone beforehand.

On the plus side, Evans said he has noticed a willingness of students, parents and community members to report alarming posts on social media. “Students seem to be more proactive in giving us a heads up on things, providing information,” he said.
School safety assessment team member Chuck Fleischer (right) evaluates an equipment
storage area at Nelson County High School with daytime custodian David Coulter. Fleischer
is the retired Jefferson County Schools safety and environmental services director. 

Parental aggression
Akers said many parents no longer back up school administrators when their children get in trouble.

Parental aggression prompted the development of a model civility policy that all but a handful of districts have adopted after it became a recurring theme in the safe school assessments, he noted.

Vincent has an explanation for this change: “Many parents do not feel they have done a good job in parenting and as a result they try to go overboard when their child gets in trouble at school and they become aggressive with school systems in an effort to show they are taking up for their child,” he said. “And they are not willing to allow their child to suffer the consequences and learn from those mistakes.”

Mental health, addiction issues
Depression, anxiety, teen suicide, drug issues, addictions, Akers rattled off. “Schools are not equipped to deal with this but there are programs in the schools that are attempting to deal with it.”

These include a new state approach to youth suicide, a program called Youth Mental Health First Aid and a feature of the new state assessment system that will include measures of “whole child support.”

Akers said schools are spending more time addressing problems that originate outside the school. “We can be a triage, but parents need to get their kids to the proper mental health professional to deal with these things,” he said.

Evans said when he was a principal, students might come to school under the influence of alcohol or marijuana. But he said the substances being abused today are potentially much deadlier and less easy to detect. “And you’re thinking, do you have things in place as a school district if a child overdosed? That raises the bar quite a bit.”
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