For a long time, schools were viewed as safe places where youth went to learn academics, and experience events that helped them grow into well-rounded adults.
Sure, there were the occasional scuffles or hallway fistfights, but the violence usually ended when school staff intervened and someone was sent to detention or suspended.
But since 1999—when two gunmen, students at Columbine High School—shot and killed 12 students and one teacher and injured 21 others, the age of innocence has ended.
Since that time, there have been 31 school shootings, the most recent at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn.
Twenty children were gunned down, along with six school staff members.
For educators, parents and others, thinking about the type of violence that can occur nowadays at schools is tough to stomach.
But the possibility of extreme violence has to be addressed.
At North Branch Area Public schools, district officials are addressing that possibility.
Staff movement, drills, working with police
Last week, NBAPS Superintendent Deb Henton and NBAPS Community Relations Coordinator Pat Tepoorten spoke to the Post Review on what the district is doing to ensure the safety of its students.
At Youth Connections School Age Care, located at the North Branch Area Education Center, the entrance of the building has been more thoroughly secured.
“We actually changed the location of one of our after school workers,” Henton said. “We put her in the office area, rather than sitting in the hallway.”
She added, “The person seemed very vulnerable right there because parents could walk right up to her. Now they can’t.”
The district has been working with the North Branch Police Department and the Chisago County Sheriff’s Office for years to address security concerns at the schools.
“We’ve met and we reviewed our procedures,” Henton said. “That’s not uncommon.”
The district has an emergency response committee comprised of principals, assistant principals, a school resource officer, building and grounds supervisors and others who work closely with police.
All sites within the district also practice emergency preparedness drills five times a year.
Those drills include lockdowns, fire and severe weather drills.
Henton added NBAPS has the “buzzer” system at three of its sites, meaning visitors have to be buzzed in by an office staff worker before they can enter the building.
Tepoorten noted structural upgrades at some of the buildings have happened over the past three to four years to address security deficiencies.
At the high school, a corridor was constructed at its entrance, so visitors have to walk into the office before entering the school.
“Those are not perfect systems, but we’re trying to do everything we can to upgrade,” Henton said. “Our primary concern is the safety of our kids and our staff. Those efforts we know are measured, but they’re what we can do.”
The ‘more guns in schools’ debate
Henton and Tepoorten acknowledged there is a contingent of parents and community members who believe schools would be safer if there were armed personnel roaming their hallways.
The part-time school resource officer, who has an office at the high school, is armed, but no other staff have weapons.
“We’re watching closely debates that are happening around school security,” Tepoorten said. “But there are many, many issues to be worked out in that regard. Chief among them: we’ve heard the point made that there should be more guns in schools. But there is a lot of study to be done, I think, in that regard. The point of something like that is to make your school safer. I think we’re a long way from being able to determine that actually makes your school safer. In some situations, it may actually have the opposite effect.”
Henton and Tepoorten both noted school officials are in a difficult situation when it comes to security, because they want to keep students safe, but also have schools be welcoming places.
There is no way to make schools 100 percent secure, but Henton said NBAPS is always looking for ways to improve security, and one of those ways would be to partner with people in the community.
“The best thing that the community can do is if they know that somebody is particularly disturbed, or if there are issues that we should be aware of … the best thing they can do is give us that warning,” Henton said. “We need to partner with them, and we need to build relationships with everyone in the community. They need to know they can trust us if they call with information about a concerning situation. We’ll deal with it confidentially, but we’ll deal with it.”