Districts: School safety a community effort

By LEANN BURKE
lburke@dcherald.com

Just over two weeks into the 2019-20 school year, local schools have already investigated two possible threats: one at Jasper Middle School on Aug. 13, and one at the Northeast Dubois County School Corporation Tuesday.

After investigation, neither threat was found to pose any danger to school staff or students, but they did add to a growing number of potential threats to local schools in recent years. The Southwest Dubois County School Corporation had to investigate a threat in both the 2018-19 and 2017-18 school years.

While it may seem that there are more threats against our local schools than in previous years, school officials said that isn’t necessarily the case. Rather, the public is more aware of threats than they were in the past — thanks, in part, to social media and the ease of access to information on the internet — and the way school officials handle threats has changed in the past decade.

“We are just a lot more alert in looking for things like that,” said Northeast Dubois Superintendent Bill Hochgesang. “Anytime we hear a threat, we take it seriously.”

It’s not just school officials who are more alert. Both parents and students also pay more attention and alert the schools when they see something concerning. In fact, Hochgesang said, when threats are reported, it’s most often a student or parent reporting it.

School administrators agreed that while the schools do everything they can to be proactive in keeping students safe, it’s really a community effort. To that end, all of our local schools emphasize, “If you see something, say something,” to the students and the communities they serve.

“We do want kids to speak if they see something,” said Greg Werner, school safety director at Southwest Schools.

Werner also pointed out that how schools handle emergencies has changed in the past several years, with changes in state guidelines and laws concerning school safety. However, he didn’t go into detail in an effort to keep school safety plans confidential.

At the local level, school officials, local law enforcement and other community stakeholders have set up a safety committee that works together to create emergency plans and to respond to threats. Although schools have always had working relationships with other local agencies, administrators said such a coordinated effort is something that didn’t exist in the past.

“With situations throughout the county, it seems like there are a lot of hands that go to work in investigating and preventing [an incident],” said Southeast Schools Superintendent Jamie Pund.

Another key to keeping schools safe is building relationships with students and making sure they know violence of any kind is not a joke, Pund said.

“That comes through a lot of dialog between staff and students,” she said. “It also comes through character lessons.”

Even with schools’ efforts to educate students, there are still those who don’t get it, Pund said. In those situations, Pund stressed the importance of reporting the comments, even if you think the person saying them was joking.

“Unfortunately, it’s our world now,” Pund said.

So what happens when a report is made? Greater Jasper Superintendent Tracy Lorey laid out the process.

Generally, students or parents make a report — not just of a threat of violence, it could also be bullying or a safety concern with a facility — to a member of the school’s staff, and that staff member passes the report to an administrator.

From there, school administrators investigate the report and determine what course of action to take. More often than not, Lorey said, administrators can handle reports internally. However, if there is the possibility of something illegal going on — as was the case earlier this month when a student sent a picture of a gun with a threatening statement to another student — the school involves local law enforcement, who conduct their own investigation.

Even when schools do involve local law enforcement, Lorey said, investigations generally turn up nothing for the public to be concerned about.

While, so far, safety threats at local schools have turned out OK, school officials aren’t getting complacent. They still stay up to date with current safety standards and do their best to be proactive. They encourage community members to do the same.

“We want kids, parents and community members to feel safe in our schools,” Lorey said. “We encourage people, ‘If you see something, say something.’”




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