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Protecting students from the worst

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With a little thought, Frank Bush can easily imagine a range of scenarios that could put school children in danger.

An individual bent on harming people could circumvent the security cameras and locks on the building by breaking a school window and spraying the classroom with bullets. A school bus could crash or a student could get into a fight.

Life is fragile, the executive director of the Indiana School Boards Association said. But just as the possibilities for injuries are endless, no single solution will likely provide complete security.

Keeping their students safe is always a top concern of school corporations, attorneys said. Safety measures are reviewed and introduced not just to protect the children from unspeakable violent acts but also from fires, tornadoes, bullying, thefts and drugs. However, the December shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., which took the lives of 20 students and six teachers, has fostered new concerns and is expected to inspire a crop of school safety bills in the Indiana General Assembly.

“I do believe awareness has been heightened,” Bush said. “I do think people are very concerned about disastrous events that occurred and are looking for responsible solutions for safety in schools.”

State and federal statutes have been enacted over the years to address security and protection issues related to students. Schools have safety specialists and emergency preparedness plans detailing what to do during a natural disaster or the procedures for a lockdown. Guns are prohibited within 1,000 feet of a school, and Indiana students caught with a firearm could be expelled from school for a year.

Shortly after the Connecticut tragedy, speculation surfaced if Indiana Code 35-47-9-1 could pave the way for teachers to carry guns because the statute includes an exemption from the school gun-free zone to anyone employed or authorized by the school to act as a security guard or who performs or participates in a school function.

The Legislature and schools often work together but, as attorney Marsha Volk Bugalla noted, the intent that seems clear in a proposal can become cloudy later. While drafting the bill the language may be very plain, but when it is implemented situations not contemplated can arise.

“We always want to be cautious that whatever we do is thoughtful and it’s not just an emotional response,” Bugalla, of Frost Brown Todd LLC in Indianapolis, said.

School resource officers

Days before the 2013 legislative session convened, Indiana Attorney General Greg Zoeller held a press conference to discuss Senate Bill 270, a school safety proposal. The bill, sponsored by Sen. Pete Miller, R-Avon, provides two-year grants of up to $50,000 to school corporations for school resource officers.

Zoeller emphasized the legislation was not a reaction to Newtown. The attorney general had initiated a study in the fall into the use of school resource officers in Indiana schools with the intent of assessing the benefits and concerns about existing SRO programs.

Duties of these officers can vary from district to district. Some are predominately used to provide security while others counsel misbehaving students and intervene in bullying situations. The study found a majority of parents and school administrators were “highly positive” that SROs were in their schools.

Miller’s bill is designed to define the duties of SROs as well as expand the program beyond the estimated one-quarter to one-third of Indiana school corporations that have them. It would appropriate $10 million into the Indiana Safe School Fund to support the grants.

“This proposal would be a good first step to meet an immediate need and expand resources officers into schools that don’t already have them, and still give the Legislature and Executive Branch the opportunity to look at other more long-term comprehensive safety options,” Miller said.

Funding could become the obstacle to this bill. Even Miller described the funding source as “conceptual at this point” with the details being adjusted during the legislative session.

Some school corporations will have enough money to be able to continue the SRO program when the grant expires, Bush said. Other school corporations are operating with such limited cash they have no revenue to match the grant unless they take a drastic step like laying off teachers.

“It’s going to be an unequal distribution of opportunity unless schools and the Legislature can come up with 100 percent of funding for the program,” he said.

Moreover, he questioned whether a $50,000 match would be enough. Would the SRO work five days a week, he asked. If the school has multiple buildings, would $100,000 ($50,000 plus the matching grant) cover the officers needed? Would the officer be in the high school, the elementary school, or at basketball and football games?

He maintains the schools and Legislature need to collect data. There needs to be more information on such things as which school corporations have SROs and how many of those officers are armed.

A January report from the National Association of School Psychologists on school safety emphasized the need for mental health services. The recommendations stated increasing services for mental health, along with social-emotional learning in the classroom, will improve the students’ physical and psychological health as well as academic performance and problem-solving skills.

Also, while the association supports “reasonable building security measures,” it cautioned against putting more armed guards in schools or arming the teachers. The report warned that “an over-emphasis on extreme physical security measures” will not improve school safety and could undermine the schools’ primary mission to educate.

Playgrounds to guns

David Day, partner at Church Church Hittle & Antrim, has represented school corporations for 35 years. Safety has always been an issue, but he has seen that attention turn from preventing injuries on the playground to protecting the students during mass shootings. Now, doors are not only locked, they are also numbered so in the event of an emergency, school personnel can direct the first responders to the correct location.

The focus of school safety changed with the April 1999 shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado and the terrorist attacks of 9/11. This caused school corporations to look at security in a new way and, particularly as a result of Columbine, brought about policies addressing bullying, Bugalla said.

After Newtown, Bugalla fielded calls from school superintendents while the schools assured parents and children they were safe.

“I think schools are always open to anything and everything that will help make them safe, bearing in mind that a school is not a prison,” she said.

Still, Day said, school administrators will become worried if a lot of new rules are passed but the funding remains nebulous. Echoing Bush, he advocates having a “good discussion” at the local, state and federal levels that takes into account that these problems are complex and not remedied with a single solution.

As Bush illustrated with his imagined scenarios, there always is another possibility for a horrifying incident.

“It’s a serious, serious thing that weighs on people’s minds when the next event is going to occur,” he said. “I just hope it happens in a way where someone can be stopped before it happens.”•

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