GREENFIELD — Police visit classrooms, inviting scared children to open up. Administrators try to soothe parents on the other end of anxious phone calls. And in every school building across the county, teachers do their best to provide comfort.
A week after a school shooting left 17 dead in Florida, Hancock County students and staff members are still reeling. The county hasn’t seen a rash of threats like those experienced in other schools. Still, ongoing conversations are necessary but exhausting, they say. And at the core of each is one common theme: We want to feel safe.
Since the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting Feb. 14, educators have been talking with students about the tragedy and practicing what they would do if an intruder entered their buildings.
District leaders sent letters home to parents, started conversations with students and sat down with teachers to discuss safety improvements — from locked doors to more frequent perimeter sweeps.
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Meanwhile, experts in the mental health community call for an approach that’s about more than physical barriers — supporting someone who is struggling before they feel picking up a gun is their only option.
Following the shooting, Eastern Hancock decided to keep more of the district’s building doors locked in the morning so staff members do not have to monitor so many entrance points, said Lt. Donnie Munden, a sheriff’s department employee and resource officer for the district.
Administrators declined to detail how many doors are open.
In the week that followed the shooting, school leaders at the county’s smallest school district have worked to address the concerns of parents and students alike, said Eastern Hancock High School principal David Pfaff.
Pfaff addressed the middle and high school students first thing Feb. 15, the day after the shooting, and each school held a lockdown practice this week, he said.
On Thursday, Pfaff, superintendent Vicki McGuire and a school resource officer visited every homeroom class to hold a question-and-answer session with high school students, in an effort to talk about how they can make the school safer.
“Something about this shooting, this one has hit the teachers and kids in our corner of the county pretty hard,” he said. “The teachers have been spending a lot of time in class listening to student concerns.”
Pfaff said it can be challenging to implement security changes and drills in a way that neither makes students fearful to come to school nor desensitizes them to the danger.
For example, Indiana law requires districts to run fire drills monthly, and by the time students are high-schoolers, most have become complacent about responding quickly and seriously to the fire alarm, he said.
For now, though, school leaders want to capitalize on the conversation happening everywhere from kitchen tables to courtrooms.
“Right now, the adults, parents and kids are a pretty engaged audience,” he said. “Everybody’s willing to think and talk about it.”
Focus on wellness
Those conversations about school safety have to encompass more than locked doors — physical barriers to danger.
The danger is sometimes within us, experts say. Making schools safe must be a multi-pronged approach that includes open dialogue about access to mental health for students who might be suffering.
Eastern Hancock guidance counselor Jen Lightcap said schools encourage parents to share any concerns about their child’s emotional well-being, but they can’t compel them to pass along medical records or disclose any mental illness.
“I think sometimes parents are uncomfortable sharing that because of the perceived stigma,” she said.
She focuses on building relationships between students and teachers, so a child in need feels like they can trust those around them or receive support they don’t get at home.
Guidance counselors like Lightcap are mandated by state law to report any concerns about a child’s well-being. But if a student is struggling silently, the best schools can do is empower them to reach out — whether to a trusted teacher or volunteer.
“So much of it is feeling connected,” she said.
Preventing violence in schools takes more than security guards, agreed Gina Colclazier, director of counseling services at Brandywine Community Church and leader of its under-construction Mental Health Resource Center.
Providing education to students, parents and teachers about the signs of mental illness and lowering barriers to mental health services will go a long way toward that goal, she said.
As part of the effort to create the resource center, which includes support groups for teens and adults facing mental illness, officials at Brandywine had some 30 youth leaders trained in Mental Health First Aid, an eight-hour course that gives people the skills to intervene when someone is experiencing a mental health crisis, according to the Mental Health First Aid USA website.
Helping young people in the community understand and respond to signs of mental distress could lead to intervention before a tragedy like a mass shooting happens, Colclazier said.
In the days since Parkland, Greenfield-Central’s administrators have sat down with the heads of each academic department, asking what safety protocols the teachers say they believe need to be updated or improved said Jason Cary, principal of Greenfield-Central High School.
These are conversations they have often and will continue to have, Cary said; but it’s an important dialogue to open after a tragedy because concerns are fresh in everyone’s minds.
Educators often hear from parents following shootings like the one in Florida last week; worried moms and dads want to know what’s being done to keep their children safe.
School leaders value invested parents, but there’s only so much detail about their safety plans they can reveal to the public, Southern Hancock communications director Wes Anderson said.
What he can tell parents is the district’s safety team meets routinely, and local and state law enforcement officers — as well as school safety experts — are involved in those conversations.
And the district consistently applies for grants to help fund school safety initiatives and measures, he said.
Other educators echoed those sentiments, saying just because parents and the community don’t see all the safety measures schools take doesn’t mean action isn’t happening behind closed doors.
Districts across the county require visitors to be buzzed into locked buildings, and they must show an ID and wear a name badge if they leave the main office.
In a letter to parents last week, Mt. Vernon Superintendent Shane Robbins outlined some of the district’s safety procedures and what administrators are doing following the latest school shooting.
The district has increased perimeter security sweeps to ensure doors — which are locked from the outside — aren’t being left propped open by staff and students, Robbins said. And he’s reviewing who needs to have access to alternative entry points into the building — delivery drivers, for example.
Educators won’t ever find the perfect solution for keeping kids safe — there are going to be fights, they’ll hurt themselves on the playground — but they’ll do whatever they can to ensure students don’t fear coming to school and keep out people who don’t belong, he said.
“I’m a parent, too,” Robbins said. “My thoughts quickly shift from the one child at Mt. Vernon with my last name to the 4,000 children I promise to protect each and every day,” he said.
‘They could save lives’
In some cases, it’s the students leading the conversation about increased security measures. They look at their classrooms, their weaknesses, analyze how many school resource officers are on campus and wonder if it’s enough.
As he left Greenfield-Central High School on Thursday afternoon, senior Mason Conner wondered about what might happen if a shooter made it through the doors.
He pointed to the building’s one school resource officer, stationed in the front office.
“If we’ve got somebody shooting out on the other side of the school, how long do you think it’s going to take to get down there and stop it?”
Conner wasn’t sure the discussion ought to be about limiting access to guns so much as equipping the right people with weapons that could defend them. More security guards would make students feel safer, Conner said.
None of the county’s school boards has voted to allow teachers to carry firearms. They are permitted to keep legally obtained weapons locked in the trunk or glove compartment of their vehicle on school grounds, according to state law.
Marnie Abram, a Greenfield-Central senior, said she wants students to be able to practice what to do if a shooter overtook the building, the same way they practice for fires or tornado. Right now, if there is a threat, the building just goes on lockdown. They’re told to lock the door and sit quietly.
But she knows hiding isn’t always what police recommend; they say that, if it’s safe, everyone should run from the building and find help.
Does she feel safe at school? No; but it’s not the school’s fault. She doesn’t feel safe anywhere. After all, gun violence isn’t just in schools, she said.
“I see people walking around with guns a lot,” Abram said.
There are some risks conducting active-shooter training in schools, said Maj. Brad Burkhart, the sheriff’s department chief deputy, who regularly hosts educational sessions on the topic at businesses, offices and churches across the county.
Mainly, there’s the sinking fear you’ll train a future shooter, giving a student who loses control a road map to harm others, he said.
So, Burkhart avoids heading into the classroom with the in-depth, detailed program he typically offers. But that doesn’t mean students shouldn’t be prepared, Burkhart said. They need to know the basics of how to protect themselves from a shooter, and those lessons can come from their teachers, parents or local law enforcement, he said.
In his training, Burkhart preaches the shorthand: Avoid. Deny. Defend.
He said running away from the shooter — no matter what building you’re in — is the primary way to stay safe. If running isn’t an option, students should hide from the danger by barricading themselves somewhere safe where they can wait for help to arrive.
As a last resort, fighting the shooter can save lives, he said. He suggests throwing things to distract the shooter, which will create the opportunity to run or thwart the gunman’s weapon.
These tactics can be applied in any building, in any emergency, he said.
After mass casualties, there is always an influx of requests from concerned community members wanting an officer to visit their facility to conduct an active-shooter training, Burkhart said.
For example, he visited more than a dozen churches at the end of last year after a shooter killed dozens of congregation members at a church in Texas.
Schools don’t often reach out because they typically have safety protocols and plans in place, though the details are scarcely shared with anyone outside of the school administration, Burkhart said.
Parents of students in Hancock County schools have pulled their children aside for some difficult conversations in the wake of the school shooting in Florida.
Nicole Niendorf, who has five children attending Southern Hancock schools, said her whole household talked together about what kind of precautions are being taken at their schools.
She wants to talk with her kids about what’s going on, but she doesn’t want to scare them, she said.
She said she appreciates how Southern Hancock takes pains to alert parents of what’s going on at their schools, whether it’s a lockdown drill or a two-hour delay, she said.
“The teachers, the bus drivers, they all try to make sure the kids are safe wherever they are,” she said.
Greenfield resident Tim Essex, who has children in Greenfield-Central elementary, intermediate and high schools, said he has three nieces living in Florida, so the shooting hit close to home.
He said his children asked him what to do if there’s a shooting at their school. He coached them the best he could. They talked about whether to hide or try to get out.
He said he believes the U.S. isn’t doing enough to protect its children. He said he thinks it would be a good idea to implement active-shooter training in schools.
It’s scary, but it’s reality.
“If it saves one child’s life, it’s worth it,” he said.