School Safety a Priority for Districts in the Ozarks, Especially Following Mass School Shootings
Columbine High School in Columbine, Colorado was the site of a mass shooting in 1999. Fourteen students and one teacher were killed by Columbine students armed with guns. The shooters were also killed. Twenty children and six staff members were killed in 2012 in a mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. And in February, a mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida claimed a total of 43 lives.
Tragedies like those emphasize the need to make school safety a priority.
That starts with securing school buildings. And leaders at two large school districts in the Ozarks say they work to make buildings as secure as possible.
Jim Farrell, director of school police at Springfield Public Schools, said all school buildings are limited to one access point during the school day.
"The catch phrase right now seems to be 'hardening the facility,' if you will," said Farrell. "You know, everyone likes to use the term, 'lockdown.' And we like to say our buildings are locked all the time except during drop off and dismissal."
Anyone who visits a school during school hours must press a button and be granted admission before they may enter the building. He said there’s always room for improvement, and they’re always working on that.
It’s a similar situation at Nixa Public Schools where Zac Rantz serves as the chief communication officer. At the high school, visitors must check in at a window of the school office, located between two sets of glass doors, before being allowed to enter the school.
Teachers at both schools keep classroom doors in the locked position so they can close them quickly if needed.
According to Rantz, keeping students safe is their “number one priority.” Everything they do, he said, is centered on that.
"Because if they don't feel safe, they're not going to learn," he said. "And that deals with fire safety, tornado safety, you know, safety from...home situations, so it's kind of that wide gamut of why we do what we do. It's that Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs that we have to address before they're going to learn, and so we really keep that in mind."
Nixa has five officers who work solely for the district, and another will be added next year.
In Springfield, there are 23 sworn officers who work for the district. Each high school and middle school has an armed officer assigned to it, and other officers are available to help them and to go to elementary schools.
They’re all sworn peace officers, according to Farrell, and they all carry commissions under the Greene County Sheriff.
If a threat to a school is made, they get involved immediately. If it’s a student threatening another student, they’ll often handle it themselves, he said. But other times they may seek outside help.
"Sometimes it may need a computer forensics guy or investigator, and then we'll go to the appropriate agency, whether it's Springfield Police or the Greene County Sheriff's Office and request their assistance," he said.
Often, it’s a teacher or a student who alerts authorities to a threat.
Because of that, building relationships between officers and students and staff is “everything,” according to Farrell, who says it’s the foundation of what they do. He said the relationship building with students starts at an early age by officers assigned to patrol cars.
"We want them to be in those elementary schools and start those relationship building at that age because, really, what do we want when they're in high school and something's going on? We want them to feel comfortable coming to an officer," said Farrell.
According to Farrell, they investigate a variety of threats--even if it's a first grader who tells a classmate they’re going to kill them. He said threats made by students keep officers busy.
"When you think about 25,000 students, we're investigating either some sort of threat of self-harm or threat, student to student, all the time," he said.
Those aren’t necessarily a threat against an entire school. Fortunately, he says, that’s a rarity.
Zac Rantz says anytime there’s a threat of any kind made by a student in the Nixa School District, it’s fully investigated by school police, local police, the Christian County Sheriff’s Office and school administrators.
"They'll come in and determine what actually is the threat and how it would impact our students," he said.
Both Rantz and Farrell said their schools hold armed intruder drills so students and staff know what to do if a real situation should arise.
If an armed intruder were to enter a school in the SPS District, Farrell said his officers are trained to go in, find that person and stop the threat.
And SPS officers recently attended training with the Greene County Sheriff’s Office so officers can provide immediate medical care if needed.
"We do our best to be prepared for any type of situation that could arise," he said.
School counselors also play a role in keeping students safe—whether it be offering support for a student who is suicidal or working with a student who has made a threat against others.
Rhonda Mammon, director of counseling services at Springfield Public Schools, said they make counseling available to any students that’s identified as needing it. That’s always one of the first steps when a students has been disciplined, including being suspended. They can’t require that a student receive counseling services, but they offer parents help finding resources outside of school. According to Mammon, that’s something most parents are willing to accept.
"They are usually very blown away by it and very distressed over it, and they ask for assistance in some way," she said, "and we have a whole bank of resources within our schools as well as community that we can make referrals to."
SPS contracts with six school-based clinicians who are employees of Burrell Behavioral Health to offer counseling in schools when a parent requests it.
Mammon said they work with staff so they know the warning signs of suicide and so they know what to do if they see those signs or if a student share information about a threat.
According to Mammon, building relationships between counselors and other staff and students is important, too, in preventing a tragedy like the one in Parkland, Florida.