Are Our Kids Safe? An in-depth look at local schools and their responses to school safety

March 22, 2018


In the wake of the shooting that occurred at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and threats recently made on local schools, parents are wondering what schools here in Pine County are doing to keep kids safe. Three local schools, East Central, Hinckley-Finlayson and Pine City, shared their responses to this problem of school violence that seems to be a growing epidemic.


East Central Schools

East Central School has taken a proactive approach to knowing and connecting with their student population, according to Superintendent Andrew Almos. This approach has made it easier to connect with troubled students. They have also recently implemented extra security measures.


School security

At the next meeting, the district's safety committee will be reviewing the next phase of school security upgrades. However, many security changes have already been made following a security audit by the Minnesota Department of Public Safety and Homeland Security.


An instant background check system at a secured main entrance has been implemented. This system conducts a background check on all visitors and sends instant notifications to administration and law enforcement should someone with a history of criminal behavior try to access the building.


The most impactful decision the district has made, according to Almos, was to hire a heavily armed police officer (School Resource Officer- SRO) five years ago.


“He is hired through the Pine County Sheriff's Office,” said Almos. “The safety of our students and staff is the primary focus for this position. Additionally, the Pine County Sheriff's Office has conducted trainings in our school building. These trainings have made our local law enforcement agency very familiar with our school buildings and grounds.” Almos added that routine and random K9 searches take place at the school as well.


Student education

East Central School District houses three full time and one half-time licensed mental health providers to support students’ mental health. “These professionals have been in our school for several years, and we are seeing the benefits in our students each and every day,” said Almos. “In addition to these staff members, we employ two school counselors and a school psychologist to further support students’ mental health.”


The district has also taken part in Rachel's Challenge training to teach students how to handle negative thinking and how negative thinking can impact their relationships with family, friends, teachers, employers, etc.


Teacher education has also taken place. The school sent a team to the national Trauma Informed Schools training last summer which gives teachers tools to understand the challenges students face outside of school and techniques to help support students.


Another recent project to help support students and families in a more inclusionary way is a program called Project RISE. This program is based on research out of Georgetown University's Center for Juvenile Justice Reform and focuses on keeping kids out of the justice program.


“The research is clear; the earlier kids enter the justice system, the more likely they are to remain or re-enter the justice system as adults,” said Almos. “With this in mind, we want to rethink the consequences students receive for poor decisions, help them learn from it, and make them better because of it.”


Hinckley-Finlayson Schools

Hinckley-Finlayson Superintendent Rob Prater briefed the school board in a report on school security the evening of March 12. He stated that in light of recent threats made to Hinckley and neighboring schools, the school pledges to ‘Know, Value, and Challenge all of their students to Succeed’, but that cannot be done if students are not safe and parents do not have peace of mind. Prater laid out discussion points, some that have been recently implemented and some that could be considered.


School Security

In place for many years have been emergency procedures, guidelines for discipline and expulsion for threatening or violent behavior, the locking of all exterior doors with only one point of entry during the school day, more locker searches, and surveillance cameras. But added over the last five to seven years are improved background checks for new staff and all volunteers, visitor and staff badges, and not allowing students to wear backpacks or heavy coats.


Policies that could be added, High School Principal Brian Masterson stated, are an instant background check for all visitors, more frequent reviews of school safety policies and additional locker searches. Several schools, including East Central and Milaca, use instant background checks.


Physical changes to the building that have been added in the last five to seven years include a buzzer entry system to enter all three schools and a keyless entry system that can be remotely locked or put into a lockdown mode (remotely controlled electronic door locking system for exterior doors). Items that are currently being priced are coverings for interior door glass and more and better placed cameras.


School board member Dwaine Palmer asked if the new school addition would include more security. Masterson replied that when they are built, they would be more secure and could keep a perpetrator from entering. Additional Building modifications that could be added or modified include: better sight lines as part of entryways, less glass on exterior doors, and doors that are easier to lock from the interior of the rooms when rekeying doors or using portable door barricades. These do, however, often provide real physical barriers than can thwart criminals who would harm our students, wrote Prater in his report. The Sandy Hook Commission recommends doors that lock from the interior but not door barricades.


Board members also asked about anonymous tips. Masterson said the district gets about one each month, but parents are more willing than students to pinpoint students who have made threats. Another concern is students who open doors for community members. Masterson said this is continually being addressed with students.


Student education

“Students mistreating each other and intimidating situations can lead to many safety issues,” stated Prater. “It is not always intruders that create an unsafe environment.”


For many years, he said, the school has had outside presenters and lockdown/evacuation procedures. Over the last five to seven years, the school has implemented more safety drills, anti-bullying and kindness programs such as Rachel’s Challenge, the Responsive Classroom, and a guidance class. Mental health resources are also offered and include guidance counselors, a social worker, a school psychologist, an in-house private mental health practitioner, and full-time TSA (Therapeutic Services Agency) therapist, day treatment options at TSA, Vision (an emotional behavioral disorder school), Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe resources, county resources, and Teen Focus (an outpatient drug and alcohol counseling center in Rush City) program for students that bring their drug or alcohol problem to school.


Student education that could be added or modified, according to Prater, includes anti-bullying education in FACS (Family and Consumer Science), social studies, homeroom, social skills, and advisory class, along with an anonymous reporting system for students, families and community members. Staff and student training from a school shooting survivor could also be provided.


Currently the school has a SRO (School Resource Officer) on staff, but Prater stated the school could look at additional armed security.


“We can address many of our real problems with front door guards, School Resource Officers, and/or armed teachers,” stated Prater. “I do not have any response from our lawyers or insurance agents about the liability of armed staff. My biggest concern about hiring staff to ‘guard’ the schools is that we would end up spending recurring costs on non-instructional staff. We can, however, look at using grant and integration funding to add more counseling services to our schools. These dollars, while recurring, can provide more direct educational benefits.”


Prater stated it is his opinion that the Red Lake, Newtown Connecticut, and Parkland Florida type shootings are a wake up call to discuss safer schools but most reports he is familiar with state that students are safest when in school.


Children are three times more likely to be hit by lightning than shot at school, he said, and students are 10 times more likely to be abused by their own parents than be a victim of violence at school (including being the victim of minor attacks by other students).


So rather than focus on random shooters, he stated, he would like to focus discussion on ways to prevent the actual threats faced by addressing the following areas:

  • students being abducted by their own relatives from school

  • students willfully fighting each other in school and gangs becoming more attractive for students as a source of camaraderie and protection

  • refined mental health practices

  • bullying education and prevention


Masterson said there have been several incidents in which the district has "learned a lot through these," he said. "Our students are very resilient."


Pine City Schools

Pine City Schools are also looking at ways to make their students and parents feel more secure. Just two weeks ago, there was an investigation into a possible school threat. Similar to other schools, Pine City is focusing on two primary ways to keep kids safe: student programming and increased security.


School security

The school has added a secure entrance in the last year where visitors need to be let in from the receptionist who sees them through a camera and a concave mirror outside the reception office, during the school day. A few years ago, Anderson said, the high school added doors to all of their pods (specific wings within the building for particular subjects) and classrooms, along with upgraded video surveillance.


For the last five years, the school has contracted with Interquest Canine Services. In addition to the typical searches for alcohol and drugs, the dogs are trained to find gunpowder which could come in the form of fireworks, guns or ammunition. Throughout the school year, the property is searched including vehicles, lockers, commons areas, and classrooms. When the classrooms are searched, stated Anderson, all jackets and backpacks are left behind for the dog to search.


Student education

Each year, according to Pine City High School Principal Troy Anderson, the school has sponsored Rachel’s Challenge and a follow-up program called Chain Reaction which is designed to promote personal introspection, understanding of others and community building. The school also has a Friends of Rachel club and a Kindness Committee. Together the groups sponsor and plan kindness week in April.


Anderson said that principals visit classrooms at the beginning of the year to describe what bullying bystanders are. “We talk about the definition and what kids should do if they feel bullied,” said Anderson. He said that they don’t specifically discuss shootings but they want students to feel that the high school is a safe place for all and that all are accepted.


Last week, the 10th through 12th graders watched a one act play titled “First Person Shooter”. After the play, the students were released to their regular classes where they had teacher-led discussion.


Principal Troy Anderson stated in a letter to parents, “This is a very important message that was delivered to us all today, a topic that we feel is important to discuss, especially in light of the Facebook postings, Florida, and the current climate of the threats and school shootings across the country and locally.”


“First Person Shooter” was emotionally stirring and focused on how powerful and hurtful people’s words and actions can be toward others. Rather than focus on the school shooting, which is part of the play and the lights went out during this scene, the play focuses on what led up to the shooting and how a lack of empathy for others, namely the shooter, exists in our current school climate.


Some of the questions asked as part of the discussion included the following: Do you identify with any of the characters? Is it possible to see a part of yourself in each of the characters? How powerful are the words we say to each other (to hurt or to heal)? What makes you feel safe at Pine City High School? What makes you feel unsafe at Pine City High School? How has this latest attack (Florida) affected you? Do you think our school is doing enough to prevent school shootings? If not, what else do you think we should do?


One teacher, Mary Ellen Sauser, noted, “Using the play as a springboard opened an honest dialogue that allowed the students to discuss a wide range of issues. Within a few minutes, about 25 students ended up sitting in a big circle on stage. This was totally student driven. The conversation started out about bullying with many sharing their experiences. However, the majority of the conversation was what they could do to change the climate. The play did bring out some feelings. It was so cool to see how they were just absorbed into the group; it was like this big protective blanket. This spontaneous, informal dialogue may be one of the best experiences of some of these kids’ high school careers.”

A follow-up survey will be given to both the teachers and students with results compiled and possible action taken based on results.


Pine City School Superintendent Annette Freiheit said that their crisis management plan was reviewed at their last board meeting and they will continue to focus on: ensuring the culture in their schools is positive and respectful for all students; educating students and parents to know what to do if they see or hear bullying, harassment and/or threats; educating students and parents to understand school protocols for investigating reports; training for all staff and students on bullying, harassment, and threats and how to handle any of these types of situations; continuing to provide and refine our mental health practices; continuing to research on best practices and other resources regarding school safety and implement the practices and resources that are a fit for their district.


Some responses in the state and country

The Minnesota State Senate announced plans to fund additional school safety measures throughout the state’s schools. The proposed legislation would increase existing Safe Schools Safety Funding through the establishment of the Safe Schools Revenue program. The program would preserve the right of local school districts to determine how funds are spent and could include options such as security enhancements to buildings, hiring school safety officers or any other safety measures a district deems appropriate.


The legislation does not address funding to arm school staff, nor additional training for staff members who wish to carry a firearm. In the State of Minnesota, superintendents and principals can already grant written permission to allow a permit holder to carry a firearm on school property.

A new Florida law, called the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School Public Safety Act, was signed last week. The law tightens gun control and allows for a provision called the “Coach Aaron Feis Guardian Program” which arms some teachers if both the local school district and local sheriff’s department agree. The provision is named after the coach who shielded students with his own body and died in last month’s shooting on February 14.


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