School officials talk about safety in wake of shootings

Weighing the pros and cons of high security

High school student protest march in Minneapolis against gun violence and for gun law reform (photo by Fibonacci Blue. CC BY 2.0)

On Monday morning at Waukesha South High School, a police officer shot a 17-year-old student who pulled out a gun and pointed it at an officer. It was just the beginning of a week of gun scares and lockdowns at eight different Wisconsin high schools. On Tuesday, a student was shot after stabbing a school police officer at Oshkosh West High School.

There have been three previous shooting deaths in Wisconsin schools: Wauwatosa West High School in 1993, Weston High School, Cazenovia, in 2006, and Marinette High School in 2010. Individuals have been gunned down outside of school buildings at Milwaukee Vincent High School, Wisconsin Lutheran High School in Milwaukee and Antigo High School.

We didn’t think it could happen here.

No area of the state, no rural area, town, or city, is completely safe from school violence. Yet the only time a gun was fired and injuring anyone in a Milwaukee Public School was at an elementary school in 2016 from an accidental discharge of a police officer’s gun. 

Given that there were 90 homicides in Milwaukee in 2019, most involving a gun, it is remarkable that there is so little gun violence in the city’s schools. Students get into fights, but no one gets shot. 

The same goes for other  urban school districts writes Associated Press journalist Lisa Marie Pane. 

“If you want to know where mass school shootings are most likely to occur; look no farther than small-town and suburban America.”

Ed Negron, the Milwaukee Public Schools director of school safety and security, believes that urban schools are better prepared to prevent violence because they always believe that violence can come to their schools. He remembers attending a meeting with rural and suburban safety directors in Madison. “They wanted to believe that harm will never come them,” says Negron. They didn’t want to take the safety measures Milwaukee was taking. “Well, you are Milwaukee,” they told him.  “Milwaukee has so many safety issues. You have to do that.”

Ed Dorff is Executive Director of the Wisconsin School Safety Coordinators Association headquartered in Green Bay. He does safety audits throughout Wisconsin. Staff in smaller school districts have told him, “This is a safe place; we know everybody,” he says. But that often is not true, says Dorff. Nevertheless, Dorff believes fewer rural and suburban district are complacent. They are beginning to believe shootings can happen in their districts as well.

Another reason there are fewer school shootings in urban schools, some educators say, is that urban students treat school buildings as neutral ground. Says Negron, “Urban kids find schools as a safe place and just don’t want to bring that crap to the school.”

Cameras and Scanners

Negron believes that cameras and scanners are a big reason why urban school districts find their buildings safer. He is supported by other big city districts that have concluded that as well.

Dorff has a different view. Cameras and locked doors are low-tech items that add some security. But costly scanners may not be worth the money.  “Look at what they have at airports. Are you willing to set up to that degree?” asks Dorff. “Probably not.” Are schools going to monitor or have scanners at every door? Weapons can be dropped through open windows.

Dorff says Negron asked him if he could provide any information on the number of Wisconsin schools that use security scanners. Dorff checked primarily the larger school districts and could not find any. A handful might use hand held scanner wands at basketball games, but that was it.

Over-the-top security measures can also have negative consequences for students, says Dorff. “There have been some studies out of California that in the last three years, schools that have barbed wire and metal detectors, there has been a negative effect on learning.”

In an October Milwaukee school board committee meeting, speaker after speaker railed against spending any money to replace aging security scanners. 

But a school safety assistant recounted what happened at one school when they had a pop-up security scan. A student dropped a gun into a trash can outside the school. She heard it and retrieved the gun. The probable student was identified carrying about 100 bullets.

Urban students sometimes carry such items for protection to and from school, not to use them in the building. Students should not be bringing weapons to school. So how do we keep weapons out of our schools?

“We are children, not criminals,” one student said at the committee meeting. Reflecting on what it was like to go through a security scan, the student said, “I felt violated.” Other students stated that security scans don’t make them feel safer; they just foster a negative attitude toward school and it hurts their education.

Milwaukee School Board Director Erika Siemsen simply stated, “There is no evidence supporting scanners in our schools… I would much rather see our students greeted at the door by a smiling face.”

The school board turned down the purchase of replacement safety equipment.

School Resource Officers and Guns

On Monday, at Waukesha South High School, a police officer confronted a student and quickly shot him when he pulled out a gun and pointed it at another officer.

In many communities, police can get into a school building within a couple of minutes once a call is made. But most school shootings take only a minute or two, faster than police can respond from outside.

There has been a continual rise in the number of police officers stationed in schools as School Resource Officers (SROs). In theory, the SROs are to be the last line of defense in a school shooting situation. SROS are also supposed to serve as mentors to students and as a bridge between students and police.

“In Milwaukee, [the SRO program] has not panned out to be where we want it to be. We don’t even have a contract, right now, with the police,” says Negron, who adds  that a lot of police officers don’t want the SRO job. He hears the same from other districts around the state. The problem is the police must wear two different hats, says Negron. Once a school police officer puts handcuffs on a kid, he says, “There goes the trust issue, not just with that child, but with any other student who is watching this thing- ‘They’re just here to arrest us.’”

National studies show that, if a fight breaks out between two students in a school where there are no police, the students will often be suspended and sent home. If there are police stationed in the building, chances increase that one or both students will be arrested. In minority communities, school is where many students begin building criminal records. Heavy school security is part of the school to prison pipeline.

According to Education Week, “While black students made up 16 percent of U.S. public school enrollment during the 2011-12 school year, the most recent year for which federal data are available, they represented 27 percent of those referred to law enforcement by schools and 31 percent of those who were subject to school-related arrests.”

Republicans have responded to school shootings with calls for more funding of SROs and the arming of school employees.

At Waukesha South, the student was carrying a pellet gun; at Oshkosh West, a knife. The only people doing the shooting were the police. One thing is for certain, the more guns that are in school, the more likely they will be used, regardless of who is carrying them.

After the Sandy Hook massacre, Wayne LaPierre, chief executive of the National Rifle Association, stated, “Only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” and called for an armed police officer in every school. The NRA sees more guns as the solution, not the problem. Yet no other industrialized country has the level of school shootings that occur in the United States. No other country has the same number of firearms per citizen. 

School officials are left with the fallout, trying to make their schools as safe as possible given our current gun culture. 

School Culture

One thing school officials think they can control is the school climate and culture.

In 2016, a former student shot two students in the parking lot of Antigo High School on prom night. The shooter was shot and killed by a police officer at the scene. Further investigation showed that the former student had been bullied throughout his middle and high school career.  Many were not surprised by his actions. The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel quoted a classmate saying, “If someone was going to shoot the school, we thought it was going to be him.”

There are a lot of warning signs, says Dorff. While there is no exact profile of a potential shooter, a lot of common traits are often present. Like the Antigo shooter, they are often bullied. They are loners with few friends. And fellow students have heard enough from the would-be shooter to cause concern.

What needs to happen, Dorff says, is that fellow students have to come forward and express their concerns to adults in the school. That means a school must build trust between students and staff members. 

In the wake of the recent spate of shootings, Gov. Tony Evers declared that the state needs to provide more mental and behavioral health resources for students. 

The first line of defense against school shootings is not someone else with a gun; it is getting to know your students, says Dorff. Every student should have someone he or she can talk to. 

Dorff outlined some of the very same strategies that the students supported at the Milwaukee school board meeting: more school psychologists, mental health training for staff members, intervention programs, one-on-one mentoring. In fact, Milwaukee is doing all of these things; school board members say they wish they had the funds to do more.

Milwaukee Superintendent Keith Posley supported the purchase of replacement equipment, but he understood where others were coming from. Toward the end of the discussion, he summed up his sense of his own responsibility: 

“I wish we were in a place in this county where we did not have to take safety into consideration… I want to make sure that on every single day that when they walk out, they return safely to their parents. That the staff returns home safely every single day as well.”