With the May 25 Noblesville middle school shooting still fresh in everyone's minds, Anderson Community Schools started its academic year with an all-staff meeting dedicated to school security.
"We had staff with kids" who attended Noblesville West Middle School when the shooting occurred, said Anderson schools Superintendent Tim Smith. Many of Anderson's employees have colleagues and friends who work in the Noblesville school district.
In that incident, a 13-year-old student shot and injured teacher Jason Seaman and student Ella Whistler, who was shot seven times. In response, Seaman wrestled the shooter to the ground.
"It brought it home really quick for a lot of people," Smith said. So at the start of the 2018-19 school year, "We wanted to address [school security] head on ... It's a top priority for all districts right now."
School safety is also a priority of Gov. Eric Holcomb, who earlier this year requested a team of state leaders and other experts examine existing school protections and explore new ways to keep schools safe. A report with 18 recommendations was released Aug. 10, with four implemented immediately.
The governor is awaiting a fiscal analysis of other proposals as he determines his 2019 legislative and administrative priorities. Some of the recommendations would require legislative action, including additional funding.
The report's recommendations focus on three areas: enhanced mental health services; safety equipment/technology/tools and training; and policy or legislative considerations.
"The state's role ... is making sure everyone is on a level playing field to make their schools are as safe as possible for students and educators," said David Hosick, communications director with the Indiana Department of Homeland Security.
Expanding mental health services available to school districts is seen as a significant way to prevent future school violence.
"We found that it varied quite a bit from district to district, from county to county, as to what mental health resources were available to schools and counties across the state," Hosick said.
In the report, it is estimated only 60 to 70 percent of schools provide access to mental health services, typically through contractual arrangements with a community mental health center or other service providers.
Among the recommendations:
• Make mental health services and resources available to every student. [Require schools to provide a baseline level of professional mental health support to students and families through community mental health centers or other providers].
• Direct the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration to identify and implement a universal mental health screening tool for schools to use.
• Require schools to participate in the CDC Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System survey [although participation is optional on the part of students/families].
• Direct FSSA to provide more training to educators on mental health risk factor recognition; direct schools to implement the Mental Health First Aid programs and report the progress.
In 2015, state law identified the need to implement a statewide Mental Health First Aid training program. "Unfortunately, the 2015 legislation made the implementation of the program contingent on the availability of funding," according to the school safety report. "The working group recommends increasing funding to increase the implementation of Mental Health First Aid in schools.
• Direct FSSA to lead a statewide mental health programming initiative to provide supplemental, research-based preventative programs to schools; FSSA would provide support for schools that need resources or guidance.
Rural district perspective
Among the districts that would welcome more state support related to student mental health is North Central Parke School Corp.
The district has taken several measures to enhance school security over the past few years: having school protection officers in the schools, adding secured entrances at all schools, controlling traffic through fencing, window perfs [a one-way see through covering] to eliminate open looks into the school, adding security cameras in all schools, and training for staff, said North Central Parke Superintendent Tom Rohr.
"However, physical changes are only part of the answer. We still must do a better job on the mental health and family relation side of the equation. Many rural communities do not have the mental health resources that are readily available," Rohr said.
"Our school counselors do a great job and we utilize the services of Hamilton Center and Valley Professionals Health to some degree, but a more concentrated effort is needed for those serious family situations," Rohr said. "Hopefully, the state of Indiana will focus on these needs now that many of the physical aspects of school safety have been addressed."
The Indiana State Teachers Association also welcomes the recommendations and is encouraged by the focus on mental health services, said ISTA president Teresa Meredith. ISTA has been advocating for trauma-informed care, which involves recognizing and responding to traumatized students and referring them to outside professionals when necessary.
"If we don't do something about addressing that trauma, then it's impossible to really get to the heart of education and what that student needs educationally when they have so much emotional baggage," Meredith said.
Several of the recommendations will take funding to implement.
"I hope they acknowledge we're at a point where we simply can't do more with less. We are at a breaking point in terms of school funding," Meredith said.
"There needs to be a very serious conversation about how do we resource our schools and how do we have the right kind of community supports in place" that include mental health services and counseling resources, for both students and families.
The school shooting in Noblesville last spring showed that school violence can happen in Indiana. "It certainly was a wakeup call to anyone who was thinking, 'we'll talk about that later' ... that incident brought school safety — which includes the mental health component of it — to the forefront," Meredith said.
The working group's recommendations also address safety equipment/technology, tools and training, as well as policy or legislative considerations.
Governor Holcomb has already called for four to be implemented: Homeland Security will create an online Indiana School Safety Hub that puts state resources in one location for schools and parents. Also, a self-evaluation tool for schools to examine their communications systems is in the works; Indiana State Police are setting up an anonymous tip line; and the state fire marshal had already developed guidance for schools on unplanned fire alarms.
Other recommendations call for legislative action: Amend Indiana code to require active shooter drills in every school; increase annual funding for the Secured School Fund to $15 million; revise match requirements for the Secured School Fund to expand accessibility to all schools and broaden the scope of eligible projects under the Secured School Fund.
Another recommendation calls for legislative changes to support sharing of data between various organizations.
The Vigo County School Corp. has implemented many safety measures over the years, which include: 37 armed school protection officers in the school system each day; mental health measures; surveillance cameras; facility measures, including locked doors requiring visitors to be buzzed in; and active shooter lockdown drills. It applies for a $50,000 safety grant each year.
Stevens and Tom Balitewicz, VCSC director of student services, applaud the efforts of the safety group and governor's office to improve school safety and provide a comprehensive roadmap. Some of the measures will require state funding, and they hope the Legislature will view it as a priority.
Among the measures implemented by Anderson schools, it took advantage of a program in which the state made available handheld metal detectors, at no cost to districts. Anderson already had "a handful," and it received 28 more through the recent state initiative.
Periodically, the district uses the wands to conduct random student backpack searches, primarily at the secondary level. That lets students know "we are monitoring and trying to watch everything that comes in and out of the building," Superintendent Smith said.
The district would welcome increased funding levels for school safety grants as well as mental health programming and resources, the latter benefiting not only the schools, but community as well, Smith said. "We want our kids and staff to be safe."