What about school safety?

School safety is a serious concern these days because of the shocking school shootings that are too often in the news. A Wiki scorecard lists 68 incidents in the US in the 2000s, 230 in 2010s, and 74 so far in the 2020s. My first thought is that anything that might be done to reduce gun violence in the US as a whole would make schools safer, but those measures are beyond the purview of a board of education. School boards and school administrators have to think seriously about what can be done to make schools, specifically, safer.

In most matters, some people are better informed and better equipped to provide advice than others. We call these people experts. In the matter of preventing and responding effectively to violent attacks, the experts are the police. I had already spoken with Pat Stewart, our school resource officer (SRO) in Caledonia. He’s a gem of a person, and if you’re a parent you should look for a chance to speak to him sometime. He really cares about our kids and our communities, and he has knowledge and skills that equip him to help.

But there’s always more to learn. So on August 23, Mary Anne Timmer (who set up the meeting—thank you, Mary Anne!), Eric VanGessel and I journeyed up to the Kent County Sheriff’s office on Ball Avenue to sit down for an hour-long discussion with Sheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young and Undersheriff Chuck Dewitt.

(It should go without saying that this doesn’t mean they are endorsing us or doing us favors they wouldn’t do someone else. They made it clear that they see educating the public, and public leaders, as an important part of their responsibility for public safety. School boards consult with them on a somewhat regular basis, and of course they can discuss specific school safety plans with school administrators and current school-board members in greater detail than they can with school board candidates. But they were welcoming and generous to us.)

As I often do when I encounter people who know more than I do (which happens a lot), I took some notes. I’m going to draw upon them in what follows. I’m a pretty good note-taker but not perfect, so if something in the rest of this piece seems a little off, it’s more likely to be my misunderstanding than faulty advice from our sheriffs.

Sheriff LaJoye-Young sees the role of the SRO not just as guarding the door but as playing a coordination and liaison role. The SRO is there to help the school understand how to be safe. Sometimes the SRO has a role in coordination of services between the school and a family. If a student is having issue in school that cause concern, so that administrators need to meet with parents, the SRO might not go to the home with the administrator, but the officer might be involved with the plan.

Undersheriff DeWitt added that the SRO can make communication happen that otherwise might go lacking. Without the SRO, maybe school administrators are aware of something that was said and done in the school, and the police might be aware of something that’s going on outside of school, but neither knows about the other. With the SRO in  place, providing liaison between school and police, those communications can be brought together. Undersheriff DeWitt thinks there’s possibly a case in Kent County where that kind of communication prevented a school shooting.

Eric asked how you determine the right number of resource officers. Sheriff LaJoye-Young said that ideally, it’s better to have more than one officer to cover multiple spread-out campuses. But she said there’s no published formula that can tell you how many SROs you need. She notes that in Caledonia, with only one SRO, we have not yet had an event that could not be adequately handled. But Undersheriff DeWitt noted that Forest Hills has three SROs. I don’t think either of them wanted to make us think that Caledonia is currently in a bad spot, and I’m sure they did not want us to come back saying, “The sheriff says we should hire more SROs!” But given our spread-out territory, and how quickly bad situations can unfold, and the response times that are possible for priority 1 emergency calls, we would be better off having more than one SRO to cover all the Caledonia schools. So if you take a look now at Eric’s Priorities page, you’ll see that he’s in favor of adding two more resource officers. I agree: Eric drew a good conclusion from what we heard. That’s a good goal.

Sheriff LaJoye-Young was emphatic about the need for rigid enforcement of a policy requiring all doors to be locked during the school day. No exceptions, no excuses, zero tolerance: nobody props a door open and leaves it unattended. All doors stay locked. A simple measure. I think we’ll all recall that at Uvalde a door was not secured, and that’s how the shooter got in. That, Sheriff LaJoye-Young said, is more important than having people with guns everywhere.

They mentioned the number of school-security employees that Rockford has. Rockford has only one SRO but a fair number of school security staff. At Rockford, these are not armed guards. These are people who monitor the security cameras (what good are cameras if nobody is watching the screens?), make sure doors are locked, etc. (The sheriff said that Caledonia is pretty well set up with cameras.)

Undersheriff DeWitt said that all studies show that the sooner a firearm is introduced to put a school shooter on the defensive, the better the outcome. The problem—he and Sheriff LaJoye-Young both emphasized this—is that simply having more guns around is not the solution. Even arming ex-cops hired to work in the schools is not a no-brainer, because the skills and training required for using guns effectively are perishable. It takes constant practice and retraining. Putting ex-military people with guns in the schools is not a solution: military training (which produces warriors) is entirely different from police training (which produces guardians). How to make things safer rather than more dangerous by adding more guns is a thorny problem.

They also emphasized that usually with school shootings there are warning signs. Administrators, teachers, and students can notice and tip off the SRO when there is troubling speech and behavior that might indicate brewing trouble; but then what’s needed is adequate resources for mental-health care. The SRO has to be able to refer a student for mental-health care, with required follow-up.

What I get from this: It’s much better to address and remediate social and emotional dynamics that are headed for trouble, so that school-shooting situations never arise in the first place, than to ignore those dynamics and pin your hopes on trying to be ready to out-gun the shooter when a neglected social-emotional problem turns lethal.

It’s not possible to eliminate all risks. Different communities have different perceptions of risks, and different tolerance levels for the various possible ways of mitigating them, and different levels of available funding for various strategies. Undersheriff DeWitt says he would like to see conversations in communities about where the resources should be going. Look at various models, discuss them, and get community buy-in. Because anything you want to do to make the schools safer is going to have a price tag.

A problem with that, as Mary Anne noted, is that community conversations can become contentious quickly. Sheriff LaJoye-Young had some interesting ideas regarding how to make them more productive than contentious. If I understood her correctly, it has to do with using larger-group conversations to find agreement on values and broad principles before getting deeper into the weeds with smaller groups discussing particular concrete measures. My own thought is that if Undersheriff DeWitt is right (and I assume he is!) in saying that consensus-building community conversations about safety are a necessary precondition for actions that will make the schools safer, then one of the best things we can do to help make our kids safer is to practice talking together civilly and constructively as adults.

That is: if we adults want to make the schools safer, we have to cultivate our desire to learn. We have to be ready to concede that other people (on this issue, that would mean people like our sheriffs, and people who have studied school-safety issues across multiple years and states) know better than we. We have to willing to express our own concerns, and hear others express their own concerns, without defensiveness, animosity, or jockeying for advantage. When we hear someone else’s idea, our first reflex has to be to find the good in it, not to shoot it down immediately; but for every proposal we also have to realize that it’s also everyone’s responsibility to think of all the ways it could go wrong. In short, we have to care so much about our young people that we are willing to work together for their good.  With all that in place, we can settle on concrete strategies for making our schools as safe and secure as possible. Is that too utopian a concept? I hope not.

Meanwhile, we do what we can and must. Making sure that our schools are staying locked, trying to get additional SROs for the district, making sure to complete safety-related improvements that have already been approved (again, see Eric’s Priorities page)—these are all good measures. I would add: seeing what’s needed and what’s possible with regard to improving our ability to intervene effectively where mental-health care is needed. And (something else from the sheriffs): checking up on when our last CPTED (crime prevention through environmental design) review was done, and whether its recommendations have been implemented.

There you have it. Those are my thoughts (leaning heavily upon wiser others, as always) about improving security and safety in Caledonia Community Schools.

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