Biberstine: Devoting more money, Indiana leads in making schools safer

June 27, 2018
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By Michael A. Biberstine

The shooting at Noblesville West Middle School brought a national problem to our front door. Many have asked what Indiana is doing to make schools safer. The quick answer is that Indiana has taken some large steps over the past few years and is now in a position of being a national leader for making Indiana school buildings some of the safest in the country for children.

Two years ago, Indiana strategically took a leading role in today’s discussion on how to make schools safer. Senate Bill 147 was drafted to create guidelines for the best practices of securing the actual structures of schools. The bill initially included some funding options for these capital improvements. After debate and discussion with legislators, the funding language was removed with the intention of including it later, once the best ways to use the funds were determined.

With the already dedicated financial resources for school safety in the 2017 budget, the legislature took it upon itself to do more during this year’s special session. With House Enrolled Act 1230 signed into law, the Indiana Legislature and Gov. Eric Holcomb have made available an additional $5 million dollars through a grant program that schools can start applying for on July 1, 2018. The money is to be used for varying levels of safety measures, bringing the total school safety funding to $50 million.

Additionally, the state has made low-interest loans of up to $500,000 available through the Common School Fund for any school corporation to make equipment purchases or to make capital improvements that restrict access to the school, expedite the notification of first responders and overall improve school safety.

Homeland Security effort

The new law reviewing and recommending best practices for securing school buildings was tasked to the Indiana Department of Homeland Security. The department completed its review and produced a report outlining its recommendations.

What the Indiana Sheriff’s Association (ISA) found out after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, was that the Indiana law creating the best practices was unique in the country. ISA leaders were invited to attend a newly created committee in Parkland focused on determining ways to prevent and protect. A group of the victims’ families created the committee to look at initiatives in other states and immediately found that Indiana had taken some big steps. Senate Enrolled Act 147 (2016) created a framework for schools to work off of and Southwestern High School in Shelbyville had a state-of-the-art system functioning that the committee could visit and explore. Leaders from Parkland, Florida, legislators and victims’ families toured the school in Shelbyville in April with the ISA. Members of Congress have now reached out to ISA for guidance and advice, particularly on the steps taken in advocating for the passage of SEA 147.

Three-pronged approach

ISA continues its efforts to focus on making school buildings as safe as possible. In the legislative roundtables that took place in May and June of this year, three main issues were identified that need to be the focus for schools.

1. Hardening the structure

Hardening the structure would include the installation of bulletproof doors and windows for each classroom. Making the classroom a safe space for the students and teachers is essential to limiting the damage caused by a determined individual who wants to harm others.

This point was driven home when the ISA spoke with parents of Parkland victims. Many of them believe that if their school had hardened doors on the classrooms that were bulletproof and locked, their children would be alive. At Parkland, the shooter did not enter a classroom, but walked down the hallways shooting through the doors and the windows on the doors.

2. Immediate notification

Immediate notification to 911 dispatchers is the direct link from every staff member in the school to emergency dispatchers. That could be in the form of a button in the classroom or a fob that staff members carry with them. Because time is so critical during a school shooting incident, immediate notification allows law enforcement to speed up its response time.

In Parkland, many of the initial calls about the shooting did not go to 911, but rather to parents. The parents then called 911, extending the delay of law enforcement getting dispatched.

3. Actionable intelligence

Finally, actionable intelligence is vital to law enforcement’s response. Dispatchers being able to access the school’s camera system in real time gives those responding and public safety officials information on where a shooter might be in the building and where injured individuals may be hiding.

The shooter in Parkland exited the school building after his attempts to shoot down children leaving the school were stopped by hurricane-rated windows on the third floor of the building. He walked out alongside other kids and went down the street. For a time, police arriving on the scene did not know that, because their actionable intelligence was based on a delayed video feed from the school. Law enforcement believed that the shooter was still in the school with a possible hostage situation occurring. The delayed intelligence caused apprehension and postponed first responders’ ability to treat the injured.

In summary, the combination of hardening the structure, immediate notification and actionable intelligence creates a safe space for kids to shelter, gets law enforcement on the scene quicker and allows them to gain knowledge of the situation before they step foot on school grounds.

These three pillars to a safe building structure are in place in Shelbyville. The associated policies and procedures that accompany the safety system are intertwined into the daily lives of students and teachers, with little to no disruption to the normal school environment.

The Indiana Legislature and Gov. Holcomb have established nation-leading best practices for how to secure school buildings and have also committed considerable sums of money to facilitate the necessary upgrades to schools across the state.•

Michael A. Biberstine is a member of Frost Brown Todd in Indianapolis and a principal of FBT’s subsidiary CivicPoint, a full-service public affairs firm. Opinions expressed are those of the author.