W MI districts work to make schools safer

Kent County

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — From tornado drills to lockdown drills, security in schools has changed dramatically in the last two decades and districts around West Michigan are trying to keep up.

Kenowa Hills Public Schools and Lowell Public Schools received the largest portion in the area of a $2,000,000 grant from Michigan State Police last year, to improve security.

“Our students have to feel comfortable coming to school. They have to feel it’s a safe place”, said Lowell Public Schools Superintendent Gregory Pratt.

His district used the $178,000 it received from the MSP grant to improve a decades-old security camera system and add “shatterproof” glass to the entrances. The old camera system wasn’t digital, and could only store videos for one for two weeks.

Approved staff members, like the school resource officer (SRO) or the superintendent, can access the new system from anywhere in the district and can pull up video from 30 days prior, or more. They don’t have someone constantly monitoring the feed, but Pratt says it’s not strictly reactive.

“I would say it gives you a chance to be proactive if necessary, for example, if there was something odd going on in the parking lot, we would be able to pull it up quickly and look at it and decipher [what is is] before sending someone out,” he said. 

Kent County Sheriff’s Deputy Tim Summerhays is the SRO for Lowell Public Schools and spends most of his time in the high school.

“Just having him available here provides a sense of security for people. He investigates any issues that might be brought to our attention,” Pratt said. “Probably the biggest reason to have him is to build relationships. He is very outgoing, kids easily find him approachable and he easily builds great relationships with kids across the district.”

Kenowa Hills also used the grant money to upgrade the security camera system but has also drastically changed emergency plans, courtesy of its own SRO, Kent County Sheriff’s Deputy Tim Erhardt. He says the district is much more secure now than when he started four years ago.

“My first year I spent hundreds of hours coming up with specific plans for each building on what to do”, he explained.

That included changing how the district does “lockdown drills.” But he no longer refers to them that way. Instead, they practice “R.H.F” (pronounced RIFF) drills, or Run, Hide, Fight.

“I told the staff members playing teachers in my scenarios, ‘Okay, this is a run scenario, when the time comes, you run.’ [In the last drill we did], all even number classrooms run and all odd numbers hide/fight, and they emptied the hallways in 28 seconds, it was amazing,” Erhardt said.

Hiding and fighting entails finding whatever object the students can use to defend themselves, be it a stapler or a chair. Erhardt had the middle school run this drill on Feb. 13, 2018, the day before the Parkland, Florida school shooting.

“It’s scary because I put myself in the situation of, what if that had been here? And it’s not just me, a police officer, responding to a building full of kids. These are my kids,” he explained of hearing about the mass shooting.

Erhardt also pioneered a new program in partnership with the physical education department where younger students are taught how to climb out a window. “Their brain can say, ‘Hey, I’ve gone out a window before, I know I can safely do it because I remember doing it in P.E. class,” Erhardt said, adding that the skill is not only useful for security breaches at school, but also in the event of a fire, whether at school or at home.

>>Video: Get Out, Get Away, Get Help!

The National Association of School Resource Officers published an article about Erhardt’s program in an online magazine and since then, SROs from around the country have contacted him to discuss how to add it to their own districts.

The Kent County Sheriff’s Department has deputies assigned as resource officers in eight of the county’s 20 school districts. Kenowa Hills also has a partnership with the Walker Police Department, where every officer on duty will visit every school in the district, every day.

“Chief Long has made it a mission to expect that every officer [does that],” said Kenowa Hills Superintendent Gerald Hopkins of the agreement that’s been in place since last year.

“So that could be coming into the school, interacting with staff or students, or simply being in the parking lot completing reports. Every time, it seems, I’m in our schools, I see an officer, so I know it’s something they take seriously.”

Voters in the Kenowa Hills district approved a $55,000,000 bond proposal for school safety in 2016, which allowed for other major upgrades. The most significant of those included overhauling the entrances.

Gone are the days when anyone can walk into a school without first going through the main office, explaining the reason for their visit and showing identification. Kenowa Hills joins the list of schools that now have two sets of doors leading into the main part of the building, with the first set unlocked, and the second set locked between the start and end of the school day. This forces visitors to get buzzed into the main office and state the purpose of their visit.

“This is one of our only schools within our district that did not have what we call a secure entrance,” Hopkins explained of the new office and entrance at the high school for the 2017-18 school year.

Every building in the district will eventually have this type of entrance – a model schools around West Michigan have started to follow.

As to whether any of these measures is enough, there is clear agreement that one of the most important factors in any school building is the relationships the students have with each other and with the staff. 

The Be Nice program, through the Mental Health Foundation of West Michigan, has been in Lowell schools for the last seven years, and launched in two more elementary schools in the last year.

“Students are learning how to interact with each other, and when students feel comfortable reaching out, maybe they have a friend who’s exhibiting concerning behavior that they’re afraid of, they’ll reach out to a friend or adults within the district,” said Superintendent Gregory Pratt.

Lowell also has a new program called Bridging the Gap which helps families pay for mental health counseling that their insurance doesn’t cover. Three therapists from Saranac’s Four Health Family Resource Center visit the schools to meet with the students. Most counseling sessions are worked into the school day.

“It allows us to reach out when students or families need assistance with mental health, so if there’s an issue brought to our attention, we’re able to have resources to reach out outside the district for the family or the student,” Pratt said.

Deputy Tim Erhardt wishes there were one “fits-all” solution to the problem.

“There is no perfect solution,” he said. “If there was, we would implement it here and then pass it along to every school district.”

The Lowell and Kenowa Hills superintendents agree that having an SRO in every building every day would be ideal, but isn’t currently realistic.

“We’d love to, but that’s cost prohibitive at this time,” Pratt said.

Hopkins agrees.

“When you’re talking about lives, cost shouldn’t become an issue,” he said. “But it does become an issue, no doubt.”

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