By Jennifer Kotila
WRIGHT, McLEOD COUNTIES, MN Following the tragic school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December, Sergeant Eric Leander of the Wright County Sheriff’s Office noted there was a “significant uptick” in parents calling him to ask if their students were safe at school.
Leander supervises the School Resource Officer (SRO) program in Wright County, which currently has eight SROs within local school districts.
“I don’t want parents to ever feel kids aren’t safe going to school,” Leander said.
Although local schools do their best to assure students are safe, Leander noted he did some soul-searching after receiving those calls, asking himself if area schools were as safe and secure as possible.
He came to the conclusion that many of the local school districts take a well-rounded approach, and do things well, to assure the safety and security of the students. However, there are also things that could be done better, Leander admitted.
Communication and cooperation
One of the things that local schools do well is communicating and cooperating with local law enforcement agencies, social services, and other agencies to assure students are receiving the help they need from the proper resources.
Delano, Lester Prairie, Dassel-Cokato, and Howard Lake-Waverly-Winsted public schools each have a SRO who is in the high school and maintains contact with the other schools in the districts on a daily basis.
Delano and DC have SROs who are deputies with the Wright County Sheriff’s Office; Lester Prairie’s SRO is Lester Prairie’s Police Chief Bob Carlson; and HLWW’s SRO is Howard Lake Police Officer Darek Szczepanik.
Delano, DC, and HLWW are districts with students within different jurisdictions for law enforcement, as well as from two different counties.
One may consider this to be a challenge, but the different law enforcement agencies and county resources for those districts come together in what is known as the Safe Schools Initiative.
“Our safe school committee is made up of both Hennepin and Wright county agencies that include, but are not limited to, West Hennepin, Wright County Sheriff’s Office, City of Delano, Wright County Attorney’s Office, court services, probation, and social services,” noted Delano Superintendent Matt Schoen.
Meeker County law enforcement and social service agencies join Wright County at safe school meetings for DC.
“What I’ve seen this do is tighten things up we know who to call, and are more apt to get results,” said DC Superintendent Jeff Powers. “We know each other better than we used to and have a positive relationship.”
The HLWW School District works closely with the Howard Lake Police Department, the Winsted Police Department, and the county law enforcement and social service agencies in Wright and McLeod counties.
Safe school committees meet throughout the year and bring school administration, counselors, and other staff together with local and county law enforcement agencies and social services to discuss safety, trends, resources, collaboration, and support, amongst other things.
“This has been a tremendous addition to increasing safety throughout our schools, and provides good educational tools for staff to work with students and families on a variety of issues, such as sexting and teen drinking,” said HLWW Superintendent Brad Sellner.
Lester Prairie has an advantage to other local districts in that it is situated within one county, in one community, and the SRO is also the chief of police for the small community, as well as the chairman of the school board.
“That is the benefit of a small district,” said Lester Prairie Superintendent Mike McNulty. “(Carlson) is very involved in the school and knows the families inside and outside of school.”
“We are always communicating with each other about what is happening,” Carlson said. “These guys are my friends, too. We are so intertwined with each other in Lester Prairie.”
Access to mental health care for students
The safe school committees and the SROs also make it easier to access mental health services for students who may be struggling by having SROs act as liaisons between the school district and the outside services that are available.
School districts have access to mental health services for their students through special education programming, at-risk programming, school counselors, therapists who come into the district, and through referrals to outside agencies from the district.
“Our school resources are very good,” Powers said. “As far as help outside the school, I know we have strong contacts with most, if not all, area mental health providers through our school social workers.”
“Getting immediate help is sometimes challenging, although there is help available if it is presented in the right way,” Powers added. “Recognition of mental health issues by the family, and long-term help, is a challenge that we face.”
HLWW has a mental health therapist who comes into the district once per week, Sellner said.
“There is so much more talking to kids who may potentially have a mental health issue,” Leander said, noting it was about four to five years ago that schools began realizing mental health was a huge issue. “It was felt before that it was an invasion of privacy, but now, we make sure something won’t happen.”
Improvements needed for school safety
As Leander was fielding calls from concerned parents following the Sandy Hook shooting, some parents made the case that fences with barbed wire and military guards should be installed at schools.
“But, number one, we have to be practical,” Leander said. “We want our schools to be a welcoming environment, but my idea welcome them after they come into the school. Every parent I talked to every single one said, ‘we want buzzers.’”
Enforcing the rule that all visitors must check in at the school office, and installing controlled access camera and buzzer systems are steps districts can take to make things more secure.
“It’s very alarming to me, as an adult male, to walk into an elementary school and the clerical staff do not even look up,” Leander said. “I can wander around all I want.”
Teachers also need to be confronting someone who is in the school who they do not recognize, and who does not have the proper identification badge whether they are comfortable doing that or not, Leander said.
Although a buzzer and camera system may take some getting used to, Leander has never heard negative comments about buzzers, he said. However, there are a number of benefits.
One benefit is the ability to keep people who are not supposed to be at the school out, Leander said.
For instance, schools would be able to deal with parent custody issues outside of the building until proper authorities arrive, rather than allowing the commotion and disturbance to take place inside the building in front of students.
It would also allow the school to better handle what Leander called the “re-occurring senior,” the young adult who couldn’t wait to graduate, but now that they have, can’t seem to stay away from the school.
The buzzer system also allows school staff to know exactly who is in the building in case of an emergency.
DC is currently in the process of installing a camera and buzzer system; HLWW is considering installing a system; and Delano is considering changes to its entrances to improve security.
Lester Prairie planned to install a camera and buzzer system with the referendum that failed, according to McNulty.
It is continuing to apply for grant money through the federal Secure Our Schools program to install electronic key card locks on all entrances.
Currently, each local school district locks every door except the main entrance during the school day.