Columbus area parents are sharing their concerns and ideas about school safety with administrators and school board members, opening a dialogue on a developing topic of widespread interest.
Monday’s Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. board meeting drew 40 people, with school safety in mind following two threats last week at Columbus East High School.
The first, which occurred last Tuesday, involved a student accused of using social media to threaten to shoot up the high school two days later. The following day, a former Columbus East student also used social media to make a second threat against the school. It included a photo of the person holding a firearm. Both suspects are juvenile males.
The two acts left some students afraid to come to school, while parents are looking for answers on how safe local schools actually are.
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“We want to hear your unique message. We want to hear your ideas,” BCSC school board president Jeff Caldwell said in opening remarks during Monday’s school board meeting at Northside Middle School. “We’ve got to absorb what we hear.”
Jenni Muncie-Sujan, parent to a Columbus East sophomore and Parkside Elementary School fourth-grader, spoke on behalf of members of a Facebook group she created, BCSC Safety Now Parent Forum. The group, which launched last week and is focusing on school safety, had 284 members as of Tuesday afternoon.
Muncie-Sujan shared a number of security-related concerns cited by parents within the group, including whether the district would consider door frame metal detectors at the main entrances of schools if a public fundraising effort were launched.
She suggested that security at Southwestern High School in Shelby County, described as America’s safest high school, could be used as a template for the Columbus district’s safety plan.
That high school’s security system, installed in 2015 at a cost of about $400,000, includes emergency-notification fobs for school staff, smoke cannons from the ceiling to disorient and block a school shooter, and multiple cameras and other equipment designed to communicate with police immediately and track any intruder.
Darla Cox, a second Columbus parent who addressed the board, said she has talked to others about creating a planning committee that could share ideas with the district on school safety.
Cox, who said she was not in favor of arming teachers with guns, asked board members how individuals can come together collectively to protect students.
Current security measures
A local plan to secure school building entrances began in 2007 at Central Middle School in Columbus, eight years after the shooting deaths of 15 people — including the two teen shooters — at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado.
Within six years, BCSC embarked on a $25 million campaign to make major improvements to controlled school building entrances across the district, a project that included adding security cameras and other measures, said Steve Forster, director of operations for BCSC.
All of the district’s schools currently have controlled entrances, while 1,040 cameras keep a watchful eye inside and outside 21 buildings owned by the Columbus-based school district, Forster said.
Measures such as electronic swipe cards given to certain personnel are also in place, Forster said. In addition, BCSC has lockdown buttons at all but one of its school buildings, he said.
The one school building that does not have a lockdown button will be upgraded soon, Forster said.
Six weeks before the Feb. 14 fatal school shootings in Parkland, Florida, BCSC performed an analysis to identify potential security gaps, Forster said.
“We’re in the process of filling those gaps,” Forster said.
Safety and security drills are conducted at least once a year at every BCSC school building, and some schools do the drills once a semester, said Larry Perkinson, BCSC employee and student assistance coordinator. A crisis plan is in place for each school, he said.
Fire drills are performed once a month, while lockdown drills are done once a semester, Perkinson said. In addition, earthquake drills are performed once a year, while a radio drill with the county’s 911 center is done monthly, he said.
Those drills are overseen by school administrators at each building, while the radio drill is done in conjunction with county government, Perkinson said.
School safety measures have been discussed within BCSC senior administration cabinet meetings and will be a focus on the district’s March 9 strategic planning meeting, which will not be open to the public since the district will be discussing safety and security details, BCSC Superintendent Jim Roberts said.
New suggestions from parents can be added to the discussion, Forster said.
“We’ll explore and see what makes sense,” Forster said.
School board member Kathy Dayhoff-Dwyer, who has two children who attend Columbus North High School, stressed that school safety is at the top of the school board’s priority list.
“We, as a school board, are going to look at it very strongly,” Dayhoff-Dwyer said.
School board member Pat Bryant, a retired deputy with the Bartholomew County Sheriff’s Department, said security measures such as metal detectors need to be considered during discussions. He encouraged parents to continue offering input on how BCSC can improve.
“We can’t fix the problems if we don’t know what they are,” Bryant said.
Muncie-Sujan said she was encouraged by the commitment she heard from board members and school district leaders. She hopes the feedback from her group will be taken into consideration.
“It’s a starting point. They’re going to know what works best,” Muncie-Sujan said.
After the meeting, Roberts said he believes there will be opportunities for improvement in school safety. The focus will be looking at the district’s current plans and determining what can be done to make them better, he said.
The BCSC Safety Now Parent Forum group created by parent Jenni Muncie-Sujan has nearly 300 members and can be found on Facebook.
Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. has a crisis tip hotline at 812-379-7710. The hotline can also be used to report bullying or harassment.
Controlled entrances are in place at all of the district’s schools, which includes 11 elementary schools, the R.L. Johnson Early Education Center, Central and Northside middle schools, CSA New Tech, North and East high schools, in addition to the McDowell Education Center.
The district has 1,040 cameras inside and outside at 21 of the buildings it owns.
Electronic swipe cards are given to certain personnel to allow them access to particular buildings.
Lockdown buttons are also in place at all but one one of the school buildings.
Source: Steve Forster, director of operations for the Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp.