Safety is a top priority for school personnel, first responders.

February 23, 2018

Protective plating covers the doors of Mason County Central’s Victory Early Childhood Center.

Safety is a top priority for school personnel, first responders.

#MasonCountyNews.

By Rob Alway, Editor-in-Chief.

Last week’s Florida school shooting has again sparked the national debate about school safety. But, for local educators and first responders, the topic is something that has been ongoing for years.

Over the last week MCP has spoken with school and law enforcement leaders about the steps being taken in Mason and Oceana counties to assure the safety of our children. While there is absolutely no way to completely prevent such a tragedy, and no guarantees on 100% safety, these local professionals are constantly working to make sure schools are secure and children are focused on learning.

“My first gut reaction about this topic is, ‘what is a school?’” said Paul Shoup, superintendent of Mason County Eastern Schools. “What’s the purpose of the school? Our priority is to keep kids safe but at the same time I want kids to come to school in an environment where it is conducive to learning. It’s always a struggle with any school.”

Shoup said there is not only the balance of keeping kids secured, and keeping the learning environment the top focus of the school, but there is also the balance of making sure that the public enters a welcoming — but secure — environment too.

The majority of local schools now have locked doors and guests must enter by being let in through a buzzer system, or by someone physically coming to the door.

“In order to make school safety work, we need to get everyone’s cooperation,” Shoup said. “This includes parents and other guests who need to understand that they have to come to the office and check in when they enter the school. We are a small school and tend to know most of the parents in the district, but we still need to follow procedures. Most of our visitors understand this and that has helped keep our schools safe.”

Mark Platt, superintendent of Hart Public Schools, said that the entrances and exits of the schools in Hart are designed for security.

“Our buildings are designed for control and not for convenience,” Platt said. “All exterior doors are locked and traffic is designed to funnel into a primary location.”

Platt said the school’s doors are programmed by a computer system that will lock and unlock the doors at specific times. Otherwise, access is limited. Staff members hold entry key cards, but even those cards are limited to certain doors.

“With the exception of a few people, most of our staff does not need a master key card for any building,” Platt said. “Using cards also allows us to deactivate a card when necessary, rather than trying to collect keys.”

Other schools have similar protocols in place but even those procedures cannot stop all scenarios.

Every administrator MCP spoke with agreed that the shooter in the Florida incident was familiar with the school and its procedures, which is likely how he was able to easily enter the school. The schools are constantly adapting to such scenarios and changing procedures. But, a vigilant staff and student body is necessary to help reduce risks.

Two examples of this took place this week in Manistee and Oceana counties. On Monday, Feb. 19, the Manistee County Sheriff’s Office responded to a report of a 17-year-old male making threats about wanting to shoot up Brethren High School. As a result, the suspect was arrested for making terrorist threats. An AR-15 style weapon was confiscated from the suspect’s home. See related story here.

On Thursday, Feb. 23, Shelby Police Department, along with Michigan State Police, and Oceana County Sheriff’s Office, responded to Shelby High School after a student had received a Facebook message threatening to shoot up “SHS.” The school was placed on lock-down until law enforcement determined that the message was a hoax placed by someone in Ohio. Multiple schools around the country with the initials SHS reacted to the threat. See related story here.

“Students have a massive social network, far larger than most adults,” Shoup said. “This can often be a negative thing, but can also serve a positive purpose. The kids need to be vigilant about behaviors of their friends that seem to be unusual or threatening and they must inform the appropriate people. We want them to understand that this can be down in confidence.”

Shoup acknowledged that the schools have to take a role in teaching children signs to look out for and ways to report possible issues. He added that parents and guardians must also take an active role in discussing the topics with their children. Caretakers must also play an active role in their children’s lives, Shoup said.

Jeff Mount, superintendent of Mason County Central Schools said that an advantage of the local schools is their size.

“We have a saying here at MCC, that we are small enough to care but large enough to compete,” Mount said. “I believe that that saying reflects all of the schools in this area and it’s an advantage we have because our staff and administrators tend to know our students and aspects of their lives.” 

Getting to know parents and other caregivers can often be more of a challenge, Mount admitted, especially when they are not involved in the schools or active in their children’s education.

One of the major ways local schools are tackling school safety is by working together.

“Most of us administrators speak frequently,” Platt said. “I am on the phone or in email conversation with the Oceana administrators frequently. Jeff Mount and I speak several times a week as well. Non of us live in a bubble and most of our issues are related.” 

Following the 2012 elementary school shooting in Sandy Hook, Conn., the Mason County School Safety Planning Committee was formed. The team meets monthly and includes representatives from every school in Mason County — public and private — along with representatives from law enforcement, emergency medical services, fire departments, and emergency management.

The Oceana County School Safety Planning Committee was formed recently. That team, Platt said, was designed to mirror the Mason County committee and operates under most of the same principles.

The committees have been instrumental in bringing Alert, Lockdown, Inform, County, Evacuate (ALICE) training to the schools. The program teaches staff and students to take all measures to protect and defend themselves. In Mason County, the committee oversaw the installation of The Boot, a door locking device, that was installed in every classroom in the county.

One of the most controversial school safety topics is about providing armed protection.

Just today, President Donald Trump spoke at the Conservation Political Action Conference about the need to allow select personnel in schools to carry concealed firearms.

School administrators each agree that this is a tough subject.

“I can see both sides,” Shoup said. “We need to make sure our kids feel safe. Will having armed guards in a school make our children feel safer or will it create a hostile environment? I’m not sure.”

Mason County Sheriff Kim Cole said he believes that providing armed protection will deter a potential threat, more so than not providing it.

“I sit in my office at the sheriff’s office and I look out the window,” Cole said. “An armored car stops out front to pick up the cash from the jail. That armored car is equipped with armed guards. I think it’s a real shame that we live in a society where we protect our money with armed guards but we can’t do the same for our children, our most precious and most vulnerable citizens.”

In 2017 the Michigan Senate passed a bill that would allow for the carrying of firearms in school buildings, currently something that is illegal except by law enforcement personnel. The bill is still in committee at the House of Representatives.

“I can tell you that you will never see a sign on the door at Mason County Central Schools that says ‘this is a gun free zone,’” Mount said. “I believe that such signs welcome shooters more than they deter.”

Sheriff Cole said a police presence in schools will likely deter crimes.

“It is statistically proven that the number one deterrent of crime is a uniformed, armed police officer,” Cole said, citing a study by the National Institute of Justice.

The article by NIJ states: “The police deter crime when they do things that strengthen a criminal’s perception of the certainty of being caught. Strategies that use the police as ‘sentinels,’ such as hot spots policing, are particularly effective. A criminal’s behavior is more likely to be influenced by seeing a police officer with handcuffs and a radio than by a new law increasing penalties.”

Also read letter from Ludington Area Schools Superintendent Jason Kennedy.

This story is copyrighted © 2018, all rights reserved by Media Group 31, LLC, PO Box 21, Scottville, MI 49454. No portion of this story or images may be reproduced in any way, including print or broadcast, without expressed written consent.

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