Tuesday, April 20, 2004

School security budgets fading

Columbine was 5 years ago today

By Michael D. Clark
The Cincinnati Enquirer

MOUNT HEALTHY - Columbine was on the mind of Michael Webb when he confronted and disarmed a student who had fired a handgun in a classroom here in 2000.

He was a full-time school police officer at the time of that dangerous incident, which ended without injury. Today, on the fifth anniversary of the Columbine High School massacre that left 15 dead, shocked a nation and led to heightened security in schools across the country, Webb's Mount Healthy school police job is only part-time.

And he is concerned.

What are the biggest changes you have seen in public schools since the Columbine massacre five years ago?

• "Our teachers had phones installed in their classrooms after Columbine, and we educate kids more about harassing and teasing other students and how that can be harmful. Schools are safer now. Still, I think kids might feel more on edge than unsafe in school."
--- Betsy Thomas, sixth-grade teacher at Lebanon's Berry Middle School and a nine-year veteran of public schools.

• "Although Beechwood is a small suburban school district where everybody knows your name, there is still the possibility, however remote, that something tragic could happen. So, our schools have developed more secure day-to-day operating procedures as well as emergency procedures to deal with both man-made and natural disasters. The incident at Columbine brought home to schools everywhere that safety cannot be taken for granted."
--- Fred Bassett, superintendent of Beechwood Schools in Northern Kentucky.

• "I was a board member in 1999 and, yes, things have definitely changed in the wake of (Columbine). Many of the security issues we face can be accomplished without a lot of money, just knowing who is in the buildings, and greeting everyone that enters can go a long way toward making the school safe. In light of (Columbine), schools were forced to take "no tolerance" stance regarding many of the established school rules. We at Mason have taken the same position, but we also have a "no tolerance doesn't mean no common sense" approach. I think a lot times when schools are forced to remove a kid from what 10 years ago would have been a harmless comment, we are sometimes criticized, but we just can't afford the risk, and therefore all comments, written and verbal, are taken very seriously."
--- Dave Lenert, president of Mason Board of Education.

• "It was the event in school security because it brought an awareness to schools, and the general public, what could happen. It awakened us to the notion that anything is possible despite us taking steps to prevent it. It was a major event in American history.
--- Bill Wilcox, Ohio School Boards Association coordinator for school security issues and former school board member.

• "Columbine raised the level of awareness of kids who make threats. Kids used to make threats, and school people didn't get concerned, but now, things like that are dealt with in a very formal way. It used to be looked at as silly kid stuff, but since Columbine, we can't look at it that way any more."
--- Ray Finke, principal of Holmes High School in Covington and 34-year veteran of public schools.

"I'm missing the contact with the students ... and there are times the school officials need my presence and they have to wait until I arrive and bunch all my work up into a few hours," said Webb.

Some Greater Cincinnati school officials worry that recent school budget slashing could cut too deeply into funding for school security. And as memories of Columbine have faded, so has money from state and federal school safety grants that were quickly enacted after Columbine and paid for officers such as Webb to work full time in Ohio public schools.

Just last month, more signs of strained local school budgets surfaced when a record number of Ohio school districts - more than a third of 612 school systems - placed tax issues on the March ballot. More than half of the 19 tax issues were rejected.

"We'd like to have money to do more and we're trying to find the money to do it, but it is tough," said Mount Healthy Superintendent David Horine, whose Hamilton County school district is facing a $700,000 budget cut even though it won voter approval for an operating levy in November.

Horine praised Webb's heroics in 2000 and the officer's role in keeping Mount Healthy schools safe since. But he worries that violence outside of school grounds will eventually find its way back in.

"We've done a good job of keeping weapons out of our schools, but schools are a microcosm of what's going on in society," he said.

Officers being cut

Bill Wilcox, coordinator of security issues for the Ohio School Board Association in Columbus, said other Ohio school systems mirror Mount Healthy's security funding problems. Declining state education funding, and the end of many state and federal school security grants, have forced more officials to choose in some ways between safer schools or more successful schools.

Ohio's 612 school districts largely pay for their own school security, often in conjunction with local police departments, in their own way. Most school officials interviewed declined to publicly detail their school security funding, potential cuts, or specifics about building security for fear of leaving their students and staff vulnerable.

Wilcox said from his conversations with school officials around the state, reduced security is "certainly an option that is being looked at; and, unfortunately, I believe more (school resource officers) are being cut from full-time to part-time status. With fewer financial resources, obviously districts are having to prioritize and it comes down to what is the highest priority - education or security."

"That could be a mistake, but it is also reality."

Reading Superintendent Scott Inskeep could be faced with those kinds of tough decisions, after voters rejected a new operating levy in March, forcing $500,000 in budget cuts.

Springfield Township Police Officer Michael Webb has been cut to part-time as a school resource officer.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
"I think Ohio schools are facing these types of decisions more than ever and it's a tough, tough time. Every school district wants to be safe, but there is only so much revenue," said Inskeep.

Madeira Superintendent Stephen Kramer said that, while his Hamilton County school system has avoided such harsh decisions so far, he sees more districts facing such choices.

"Security still remains a top priority, but if I need to cut security or teachers, I'm not going to cut teachers," said Kramer.

City schools not cutting

Kentucky public schools are funded almost entirely through the state and generally don't face the same budgetary pressures as those in Ohio, which primarily fund schools through local property taxes.

Officials from Cincinnati Public Schools, the largest in Greater Cincinnati, say they have not reduced their security forces, which include 11 school officers, six security response teams and 138 security assistants at the district's 81 schools, in the five years since Columbine.

chartBut a recent survey of National Association of School Resource Officers members revealed 41 percent of the 728 school police reported "funding for school safety in their schools is decreasing."

Curtis Lavarello, executive director of the association, said he is worried that the nation's sluggish economy and public school funding problems of recent years - combined with the end of state and federal school safety grants - are beginning to erase advances in public school security that followed Columbine. Lavarello said school officers around the country tell him more are being cut to part-time.

Meanwhile, some national school security experts say school-related violent deaths are on the rise, reversing a decline that followed in the years after the Columbine shootings.

Ken Trump, president of National Schools Safety and Security Services, a private school security firm that tracks national school violence, reported last week that school-related violent fatalities so far this year reached 43, which exceeds the number of school deaths for the last two school years.

"We did make some forward steps in the year or two after Columbine, but we seem to be sliding back at an increasingly rapid rate," said Trump from his company's Cleveland headquarters. "Money that was earmarked for school safety is being cut and security is being pushed to the back burner because schools are political entities and largely reactive to their communities that fund them.

"Something as simple as buying a couple of two-way radios can make a tremendous difference in school safety."

But Trump worries that the half-decade since Columbine has made some school officials lax.

"There is a 'been there, done that' mentally that grows the more we distance ourselves from Columbine. Today's school officials need to address every potential threat from bullying to terrorist threats."

'Cameras are everywhere'

Mason High School junior Chris DeLotell, 17, recalled the horror of Columbine, saying: "I didn't think that kind of thing could happen anywhere, especially in a high school."

Troy Nelson, school resource officer at Mason High School, can monitor and control dozens of video cameras.
(Glenn Hartong photo)
Chris saw first-hand how the Mason district enhanced its security by installing the most technically sophisticated protection system in Greater Cincinnati. It includes at the high school alone 67 cameras, a small team of school officers, key card access for staff and careful checking and monitoring of all visitors.

"The cameras are everywhere and they really make you feel better," Chris said.

Officer Webb says the Columbine massacre brought a sea change to Ohio and Kentucky schools, and those nationwide, where cameras, door and window monitors, motion and metal detectors and sophisticated school emergency response plans are now staples. But Webb and school administrators agreed that all the electronic security gear in the world doesn't outweigh the importance that a single, well-trained school officer brings to keeping a school safe from violence.

"Being proactive and having a regular dialogue with students is key," Webb said recently after his part-time school shift. He knew the teenage boy in 2000 who brought the gun to school.

"But had I not had any sort of relationship with the boy before the incident," he said, "then the outcome could have been much different."

Kentucky incidents preceded Columbine

Before the April 20, 1999, massacre at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., Kentucky had grabbed national attention for two incidents of school violence.

• In 1994 Ryle High School student Clay Shrout shot his parents and two sisters at his Union home, and then went to school and held his math class at gunpoint. Steve Sorrell, an assistant principal, talked Shrout, 17, out of shooting his classmates and disarmed the teen.

• In 1997 at Heath High School near Paducah, freshman Michael Carneal - who claimed to be a victim of bullying - opened fire in school, shooting eight classmates and killing three of them.


E-mail mclark@enquirer.com


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