Kansas Board of Education member Jim McNiece, left, offered sharp criticism of a school-safety briefing by two Kansas Department of Education staff members who outlined the effort to improve security at public schools. (Tim Carpenter/Kansas Reflector)
TOPEKA — Kansas school board member Jim McNiece’s frustration grew steadily as two state Department of Education safety experts moved through a presentation on inadequacies of district crisis management plans and persistent obstacles to securing buildings and communicating with staff in emergencies.
McNiece, who represents a Wichita district on the Kansas Board of Education, waited to vent Tuesday until school safety analysts John Calvert and Jim Green wrapped up their summary of conditions in Kansas schools and the importance of being prepared for calamities ranging from tornadoes to shooters.
“You’re scaring the hell out of people,” said McNiece, who counted more than two-dozen references by the duo about how local education officials were failing to deliver on school security. “I’m a little ticked off.”
McNiece said Calvert and Green left an impression, perhaps unintentionally, that administrators, teachers and school board members weren’t concerned about safety preparations. There may be security gaps due to lack of funding, McNiece said, but not because of insufficient interest.
“The most important thing that I want to rectify: Our schools have plans. We have good, qualified people out there,” McNiece said. “Your message for those people who are critical of us as public schools is that we’re not ready for this. Let’s start with, ‘They’re doing a good job. They’re protecting our kids. They’re not leaving them vulnerable.’ ”
He also asserted school districts officials “can’t plan for a crazy person.”
Not the intent
As McNiece responded to their presentation, Calvert dropped into a chair and explained he felt lightheaded. He’s director of the state Department of Education’s safe and secure schools unit. That left the rebuttal to Green, a Department of Education school safety specialist, who said their intent wasn’t to malign local district officials.
“I didn’t hear the same thing Jim (McNiece) did,” state board chairman Jim Porter, of Fredonia, said in defense of the department’s school safety employees. “I appreciate what you’re doing.”
During his presentation, Calvert said there was no box that could be checked on a document that would magically create a culture of safety in schools.
Calvert, a former law enforcement officer, said he was frequently asked how employees or students could identify someone preparing to be an active shooter. He said the U.S. Secret Service concluded there was no precise profile of those contemplating harmful acts, because assailants had included high achievers and those struggling academically as well as isolated loners and those who were well-known and popular.
“That tends to scare a lot of people. I understand that,” Calvert said. “Students themselves have to be part of the solution.”
He said the work of preparing for potential violence required collaboration of everyone in a school with an emphasis on developing relationships between students and educators so students were ready to turn to a responsible adult when exposed to suspicious behavior among peers.
A Kansas tsunami?
Green said school districts must develop thoughtful, realistic comprehensive school emergency plans and regularly work on updating those documents. Table-top drills of potential emergencies can help prepare people, he said.
“John and I have real issues with the implementation and maintenance of the plan,” Green said. “We see, ‘I have a plan. It’s all done. I put it on the shelf, but I don’t practice it.'”
Calvert said the Legislature again allocated $5 million this year to help districts upgrade infrastructure related to school safety. Districts applying for that funding had to submit a crisis plan to the state Department of Education, he said.
“The first year I did it, I got an eight-page crisis plan and I got a 700-page crisis plan,” Calvert said. “I’ve got one on my desk right now that has three pages for a tsunami.”
Board member Ann Mah, of Topeka, said she was concerned it didn’t appear state law or board regulations required state oversight in creation of school safety plans.
“Unfortunately, no,” Calvert said. “We don’t have any teeth.”
State school board member Betty Arnold, of Wichita, said too many school emergency plans were watered down in the development process. She didn’t believe most students were aware those plans existed and didn’t think enough students knew an adult they would confide in.
“For every student that has a great relationship with a teacher, there is a student who does not. The line of communication is blurred,” Arnold said.
Guns through side doors
Janet Waugh, a member of the state board from Kansas City, Kansas, said it broke her heart to accept the evolution of violence in schools had reached a level the state Department of Education had to engage state board members on the issue. She confided that she’d heard students were getting firearms into schools by hiding weapons outside locked school doors and retrieving them later by opening those doors from the inside.
She asked about legitimacy of placing metal detectors in school buildings, but Calvert said research didn’t conclusively prove the devices were an effective deterrent. Green said students were adaptable enough to accept metal detectors in their schools, but opposition typically emerged from adults who didn’t want to change.
State board member Jean Clifford, of Garden City, said she was apprehensive about availability of broadband internet necessary for communication among emergency responders or school employees in a crisis.
In the past, Calvert said, his police radio stopped working as soon as he walked into a school. He also recalled losing a cell signal in school basements. He related these communication problems to the Uvalde school district shooting in Texas in which 19 students and two teachers were killed by a teenager who entered an elemenary school through an unlocked door and opened fire with an AR-15-style rifle.
“That’s something that we have to take from Uvalde where they were to grab their cell phones and press a button,” he said. “It worked, but at the time this incident happened, this tragedy happened, they didn’t have the internet capability to make sure everybody got that notice.”
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