GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — As West Michigan kids prepare to head back to class, those tasked with keeping them safe are getting some classroom time themselves.
At least 75 civilian school security officers are gathering for 32 hours of safety training this week at the GRPS University building on Fuller Avenue Northeast in Grand Rapids.
“When done correctly, lockdowns save lives,” announced Larry Johnson to security staff in attendance Monday morning.
“You have to know the protocol in your district,” said Johnson, a nationally recognized school safety expert who heads up security at Grand Rapids Public Schools.
‘THE FIRST 20 MINUTES’
Johnson emphasized the importance of preparation to ensure all school personnel know immediately what steps to take as soon as an active threat begins.
“Most deaths occur in a school incident in the first three minutes. From the time the perpetrator enters the building to the time the shooting stops, it’s between zero and three minutes. Most have not gone longer than four minutes,” explained Johnson in an interview with News 8.
In his presentation to security officers, Johnson noted there are multiple “active assailant training models,” but GRPS embraces a system known as “The First 20 Minutes.”
While Johnson said police in Kent County would respond much sooner, he believes personnel should be trained to secure students and staff for 20 minutes from the onset of a threat.
“The clock is always ticking, and those first minutes are so critical. If we can get all our students to safety in the first few minutes, that’s what’s going to save lives,” Johnson told News 8.
“I think if we can hold our own for 20 minutes — and it will be a lot shorter — but if we can hold our own for 20 minutes, it’s going to be OK,” Johnson told the audience. “If we’re doing all the pre-work by locking doors, student pass procedures, building relationships, if we’re doing all of those things then we don’t become one of these districts that headlines the news with tragedy.”
‘SHORTCOMINGS’ AT UVALDE
Johnson pointed to the mass shooting at a school in Uvalde, Texas, as evidence of what transpires if staff do not follow protocol.
On May 24, a gunman entered Robb Elementary and shot and killed 21 people, including 19 children.
A report from an investigative committee convened by Texas legislators enumerated the “shortcomings and failures of the Uvalde Consolidated Independent School District and of various agencies and officers of law enforcement.”
“While the school had adopted security policies to lock exterior doors and internal classroom doors, there was a regrettable culture of noncompliance by school personnel who frequently propped doors open and deliberately circumvented locks,” concluded the investigative committee, noting the school actually suggested circumventing locks as a solution for the convenience of substitute teachers.
At the Grand Rapids training Monday morning, one security officer asked Johnson how to handle substitute teachers who don’t have classroom keys.
Johnson said all subs should report to the office at the beginning of the day to obtain a classroom key and be held accountable for returning it when they exit the building.
In addition to locking all exterior school doors, Johnson said he “highly encourages” the locking of classroom doors during instruction time.
Johnson also made clear the danger of propping doors open.
“When you start propping doors, and you don’t address the propped doors, we’ve got an incident, right? It only takes a minute for someone to slip through a back door. Guys, we cannot prop doors,” he said.
In his interview with News 8, Johnson applauded the increased focus on mental health services in Michigan schools.
“The school buildings are important, but we’ve done a lot of work on hardening that target. That focus has to shift. What we should be doing from a preventive standpoint is really focusing on the mental health first aid, so we can identify the risk factors prior to an individual acting out,” explained Johnson.
State lawmakers have earmarked new funding to increase the number of school counselors and social workers in districts across the state.
Johnson stressed the critical role security officers play in monitoring students’ emotional and mental well-being.
While he does not believe in profiling school shooters, he did say there’s one thing they seem to have in common.
“They told someone about the incident, prior to the incident. They told someone. So (your) relationship becomes very important. What did the individual they told do with that information? They sat on it. And they sat on it in many cases because they didn’t feel comfortable going to an adult. That’s why your role is so important,” Johnson told officers gathered for the training.
The security officers News 8 interviewed take their responsibility very seriously.
“They come to us a lot,” said Brian Warren, referring to students in need of help.
Warren is entering his second year as a security officer at Kentwood High School.
“They can open up to use more than even some of the administrators and principals. … They talk about things at home, things with parents, with other peers, peer pressure they go through,” explained Warren.
James Blessman and Molly Vincent, both sergeants with GRPS security, said they try not to let their vigilance regarding safety distract from their communications with students.
“I try not to let it disturb how I interact with children on a day-to-day basis,” Blessman said. “But it’s hard not to think about (potential threats). It’s probably always in the back of your mind just to always be aware of your surroundings.”
Vincent said she, too, tries not to let her concerns regarding intruders get in the way of her daily tasks, including her efforts to build rapport and trust with students.
Still, it’s always lingering.
“You certainly have to have it in the back of your mind. To know what you would do in that situation. Like, walking through, OK what would I do here, what would I do if this happens,” said Vincent, who noted she never fails to check doors and bathrooms. “Every time you walk by a door, check the door. Walk by a bathroom, check the bathroom. Every single time.”
The training at the GRPS University building goes through Thursday and is open to school security staff at any district that falls within the Kent Intermediate School District.
This is the second year for the program, and organizers say it will be offered annually shortly before the start of school.