Two weeks before the first day of classes, teachers and staff at Bloomington’s Valley View Middle School were already back at work, participating in the kind of surreal back-to-school preparation that’s become routine for schools around the country.
Along with dozens of police officers, firefighters and paramedics, school staff members and a cadre of student volunteers — some of them wearing disturbingly realistic makeup made to look like gunshot wounds — ran through a school-shooting training exercise.
Walkie-talkies buzzed with chatter as emergency responders raced into the building and school staff members helped lead the high school and college student actors to safety.
“Anyone that can walk, come over to me,” yelled a paramedic, pointing the actors toward a triage area set up in the school parking lot.
After a year that included two of the deadliest school shootings in American history, the usual jitters over a new school year are amplified by a simmering anxiety over school safety. Across the country, some schools are responding with sweeping changes: armed, plainclothes school marshals in Texas, facial-recognition entry systems in one upstate New York district and tactical pepper spray canisters at the ready in some Ohio classrooms.
In Minnesota, some students returning to classes will pass through newly remodeled entrances that feature shatter-resistant windows and secure buzzer entry systems. Other buildings have more locked doors and security cameras, or new requirements that visitors hand over an ID before getting inside.
But at most schools here and elsewhere, the work to keep students safe is largely happening behind the scenes. Across the state, school leaders are wrestling with an increasingly complex list of demands: They must dig into already tight budgets to find money for costly security upgrades and additional staff, train teachers to spot and work with students struggling with mental illness, field phone calls from worried parents, and figure out how to make their schools places that are highly secure — but also welcoming environments for students and their communities.
It is an overwhelming task that requires time and careful consideration. But after each new tragedy, and with each new school year, the pressure on school leaders intensifies.
“How can they stand in front of parents and say: ‘Yes, we’re safe and secure,’ when these bad things happen?” said Rick Kaufman, executive director of community relations and emergency management coordinator for Bloomington Public Schools. “No superintendent, no principal is going to stand in front of people and say: ‘That can’t happen here,’ ” he said.
School administrators are quick to point out that the range of safety concerns they must consider every day is broad and often far from newsworthy. They worry about snowstorms and tornadoes, bus accidents and traffic jams that form as parents drop their children off at school.
But for nearly two decades, since the shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, discussions about making schools safer have been dominated by talk about school shootings. In Minnesota, students have participated in mandatory lockdown drills for 12 years, and many districts long ago added cameras and locked more doors, or rearranged school buildings to ensure that all visitors pass through a single entrance.
The shooting at a high school in Parkland, Fla., nearly seven months ago reignited interest in those school “hardening” measures — including at the State Capitol in St. Paul, where lawmakers approved $25 million in spending on safety improvements to school buildings. Nearly 500 districts and charter schools are eligible for a share of the money, which will be awarded through a competitive grant process and limited to $500,000 per school building.
Competition for the money will be intense. Before the close of business on the first day the state began accepting grant applications, it had already received requests totaling more than $248 million — nearly 10 times the amount of available funding.
And the money won’t be handed out until later this month, so any major improvements it could pay for likely won’t be started until next summer, at the earliest.
The amount of time and money required for many of the safety upgrades means those now in the works at Minnesota schools aren’t the direct result of the Parkland shooting.
In the state’s largest district, Anoka-Hennepin, officials started overhauling safety features in schools more than five years ago following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut. Demolition of portable classrooms and construction of new elementary schools with remote locking systems and other security features continues with the help of a $249 million referendum passed by the district’s voters last year. But the building upgrades won’t be completed until the 2019-2020 school year. Construction workers spent the summer finishing new secure entrances to two schools in the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district — paid for with a bond approved in 2015.
“It isn’t a quick process,” said Chuck Holden, chief operations officer for Anoka-Hennepin schools. “The construction [season] for schools is six weeks in the summer, so we don’t have a lot of time.”
‘A very scary time’
Schools unable to come up with the cash for major building upgrades have searched for other solutions. At Lakeview Christian Academy in Duluth, interim administrator Kris Brown said the small private school had already installed a secured entry system and cameras before the Parkland shooting. But after that event, she said, “all the schools were kind of abuzz, calling each other and saying: ‘What do you do?’ ”
Lakeview administrators ultimately decided to extend the hours the building was locked each day, a practice that will remain in place this year.
“It’s a very scary time to be in,” Brown said. “Sometimes you just need to listen to each other and work through it the best you can.”
In rural communities, school districts are increasingly looking to local government and law enforcement agencies for help. Crookston Public Schools Superintendent Jeremy Olson said his district now works with the Crookston Police Department to ensure a school resource officer is on campus. Other nearby districts are now in talks with the Polk County Sheriff’s Office to set up school resource officer programs of their own and potentially share the cost with the county.
Sheriff Barb Erdman said she wants to get more of her deputies in local schools, both so they can get to know students and so they could respond more quickly to any type of safety issue. But funding is a perennial problem; she’s tried several times to get federal grants but hasn’t had any luck.
“At this point we’re exploring all kinds of options: working with the County Board, looking at grant money, school dollars, county dollars — whatever we can do to figure it out,” she said.
Many public and private schools around the state have enlisted the help of the Minnesota School Safety Center, an arm of the state Department of Public Safety that offers on-site visits and analysis of a school’s safety risks. The center’s small staff has been in high demand, visiting close to 100 schools from January to July alone.
Randy Johnson, the center’s director, helps schools update their crisis plans and makes suggestions about how they communicate in an emergency. He shares information about the latest trends in safety technology, but also offers a word of caution to school leaders thinking a few big purchases will solve their problems.
“The one thing we keep reminding schools is that you can’t buy your way to safety,” he said. “You can have technology pieces and hardware and brick and mortar in place, but if it’s not very coordinated, it’s really not much help.”
In the weeks after the Parkland shooting, Minnesota lawmakers pledged to help schools do more than just secure their buildings. Legislators on both sides of the aisle gave speeches about the need for better mental health services, more school counselors and additional school resource officers. But when the session was over, plans to provide another $28 million to schools for those expenses were off the table, lost amid political wrangling over other issues.
Despite the lack of help, school leaders around the state said making those kind of changes — “softening” schools to make them places where students are less likely to be bullied, more likely to get the help they need, and where teachers and staff have the right kind of backup — are critical to preventing violence at school.
This year, the Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan school district hired a former principal, Mary Thompson, to serve as its safety and climate coordinator. Thompson will be the school’s go-to person for questions about its security cameras and door-locking system, but also for its programs on conflict management and bullying prevention.
Last month, all of the district’s elementary teachers received new training in “conscious discipline,” a strategy that aims to help students learn to manage conflicts with one another and build their social, emotional and communication skills. Thompson said she’s trying to focus on the “proactive part” of school safety, building a culture “that [helps] students feel comfortable reporting things.”
Ben Jaeger, a senior at Minneapolis’ Roosevelt High School and the student representative on the Minneapolis school board, said the regular lockdown drills and news of school tragedies weigh heavily on the minds of his classmates. He said the school “hardening” measures do little to make him and other students feel safer, and he wishes the decisionmakers in schools and at the State Capitol would instead focus on making class sizes smaller and hiring enough staff so they might be able to notice — and assist — students who could pose a danger to themselves or others.
“If we want to address the mental health aspect of safety and security, which I think is a lot more effective, let’s invest in things like counselors and social workers, and really help students who are having trouble,” he said.
Ken Trump, an Ohio-based consultant who has worked with schools on school security, bullying and violence prevention for three decades, said it’s those kinds of efforts that are likely to make schools safer places. But they’re often hard for people outside the school building to see and understand, so they often get less attention and funding.
“The pressure is on the administrators, and it’s a lot easier to point to a secured vestibule or more cameras and say: ‘See, we made your child’s school safer,’ ” he said. “But the best school safety strategies are often invisible.”