How do schools keep students safe?

When a freshman was found to have a gun at Brownstown Central High School in September, school and law enforcement officials followed their policies, and the situation ended peacefully with the student’s arrest and expulsion.

A false active shooter alarm at the Seymour Middle School Sixth Grade Center two weeks ago sent teachers and students into designated “hiding” places, until police officers arrived in less than 30 seconds, searching and clearing the building.

In February 2013, Seymour Middle School evacuated students after a bomb threat was made in the form of a note found in a bathroom. A student later determined to be responsible for the note was expelled for the rest of the school year.

The previous year, two Seymour schools, Seymour High School and Emerson Elementary, heightened their security after a report of a person walking in the area carrying a rifle. That report ended up being unfounded.

Local school and law enforcement officials do not take threats of violence against schools lightly but are confident they have measures in place to help them react to potentially dangerous situations.

Those procedures include information officials don’t want to make public in order to keep them from being known by someone planning to harm students or staff.

“We generally do not share specifics to our safety procedures to preserve the integrity of those plans,” said Talmadge Reasoner, assistant principal at Seymour High School and safety specialist for the corporation.

In light of a rash of recent threats being reported at schools and businesses across the country, including as close as Columbus, Franklin and Plainfield, Brownstown Central Superintendent Greg Walker said he is concerned with the level of publicity the threats are receiving.

No schools in Jackson County have received any recent threats.

“The more it’s publicized in the newspapers and on TV, the more credit we are giving to those making the threats,” he said. “It also encourages copycats or anyone thinking of trying something.”

Although any threat is taken seriously, whether it’s a note written on a bathroom wall or a comment made on Facebook, Walker said incidents are treated individually and reactions will vary.

“Our policies will be followed, but they are tweaked to meet the situation,” he said. “I feel that we have the best safety measures in place.”

One of the first steps taken is involving law enforcement. In some cases, school resource officers already may be on site. Both Brownstown Central and Seymour have a police presence in their buildings. Thanks to state Secure School Safety grants, Seymour is adding a third school resource officer for 2016.

“When our district receives any type of threat, we immediately begin work with our school resource officers, other local law enforcement and school personnel to identify the credibility and respond accordingly,” Reasoner said.

Neither Reasoner nor Walker could recall their respective districts ever canceling classes for a threat of violence like the ones made in Plainfield and Franklin.

“I don’t have any of the specifics and therefore can’t compare how they responded versus how we would respond,” Reasoner said.

Even with protections in place, schools often receive backlash from parents who say they should be kept better informed of what is going on when a threat is made or the school is put on lockdown.

Walker said Brownstown uses an automatic texting/email alert system to notify anyone signed up to receive the messages of what is happening, but that is not the first priority.

Seymour also has automatic texting/email capabilities and has an anonymous tip line for students to be able to communicate with school resource officers to report a potential threat or other situation.

“First and foremost, we have to handle the situation and ensure the safety of our students before we give out any information,” Walker said. “We have to have everything under control.”

Parents and the public typically find out sooner, though, through social media, he said. He advises people not to believe everything they read on Facebook or Twitter and to wait until information is confirmed by school officials or the police, which also work with local media to get out information.

Kendra Zumhingst, a mother of two school-aged children, has spent time at Seymour Middle School the past few years as a volunteer with the 21st Century Business program. She was at the school after the mass shootings in San Bernardino, California, and had a discussion with students about active shooter situations.

“The kids in my class were very educated on what to do if there was an intruder or active shooter,” she said. “They knew what to do, who to open the door for and what to do if that person made it into their room. I was thoroughly impressed.”

Schools practice active shooter drills and continue to invest in upgraded security technology to help limit access to buildings. Seymour schools are looking into purchasing new surveillance systems that tie into Seymour Police Department and can be used remotely.

When investigating threats of any kind, school officials try to include as many people as possible, including students, teachers and staff, family, counselors and police.

“We have to talk to everyone and look and see what is credible and what is not,” Walker said.

Anyone found to be responsible for a threat, whether it’s real or not, is punished by the school and usually by the police, too.

“There are legal and school consequences for making these types of threats or false reports,” Reasoner said.

“We will punish them to the maximum allowed, which is expulsion from school,” Walker said. “The police would also carry out the full extent of the law, which could mean they are arrested. We are not going to tolerate anything that disrupts school. That includes a student who might pull the fire alarm as a prank.”

Kendra Harris of Seymour also has a young son who attends elementary school in Seymour. Through her job at Big Brothers Big Sisters of Jackson County, she visits the schools on a regular basis.

“I feel the schools do all they can to keep the students safe,” she said.

She hopes the schools help address issues that could lead to violence before it’s too late.

“I’m thrilled Jackson Elementary is teaching that character counts and is teaching our children about empathy and compassion through their Bucket Fillers program,” she said. “Hopefully, such programs can help prevent some students from being alienated and feeling like their only option is to resort to violence against their peers.”

Through the Bucket Fillers program and a similar Golden Ticket program at Margaret R. Brown Elementary School, students are rewarded for good deeds and being kind to each other.

Pull Quote

“We are not going to tolerate anything that disrupts school. That includes a student who might pull the fire alarm as a prank.”

Brownstown Central Community School Corp. Superintendent Greg Walker on handling school threats

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January Rutherford is a reporter for The (Seymour) Tribune. She can be reached at jrutherford@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.