How safe are Walworth County's schools?

Part 1: Security vs. learning: the balancing act

By Donna Lenz Wright/The Week

(Published Thursday, Oct. 12, 2006, 5:00 p.m.)

"Safety is our No. 1 concern," said Leslie Steinhaus, Whitewater School District administrator. "We want to reassure parents that their children are safe in our schools.

After the recent series of deadly school shootings, Steinhaus isn't alone in her concern.

Walworth County schools have pushed safety to the top of their agendas. Some schools and districts have reviewed their policies and found them sufficient, while others have already decided to make more changes to keep students safer as they learn.

So what can our schools do to keep staff members and students safe?

Despite renewed attention, safety isn't a new issue for schools.

One tool is the school police liaison office, which the larger districts have employed for years.

In Whitewater, officer Michele Martin's regular presence in the schools provides a valuable resource for keeping tuned in with students and their families.

But Martin, like other liaison officers, can't be everywhere all the time, and officers deal with a wide range of safety and security issues.

So districts continually review their policies, particularly in light of the recent events.

The Whitewater district sent letters home to families a week ago, "to reinforce things we do on a routine basis, tips for parents, provide (parents and students) with access to school counselors and psychiatrists and to tell them about the resources on our school Web site. We're on top of it," Steinhaus said, adding that it's an ongoing process of practicing and reviewing.

"We've done several things and keep our staff and administration up-to-date," she said. "We have a crisis manual with plans specifically for crisis procedures. We hold secure lock-down drills periodically and last year we revised bullying policies and our staff has been in-serviced and is very vigilant on this topic."

Steinhaus added that a meeting was held a week ago to discuss any revisions that may need to be made to the procedures. They're also contemplating installing a telephone tip line where anyone can leave an anonymous message about anything they may have heard in the form of threats or violence.

The East Troy Area School District is considering additional changes to their policies.

Bob Spence, East Troy School District administrator, said school safety was on last week's school board meeting agenda.

"We will be reviewing our current plan to see if there are any changes that need to be made regarding some increased security. (It could) possibly include identification tags and a phone number that students could call potentially to report any concerns they would have for their safety.

"We also have a plan in place available to staff and administration to make suggestions."

Realistically, it's not possible to make a school 100 percent safe, say other administrators. Keeping schools a positive place to learn and grow are fundamentally necessary too.

"Right now we're comfortable with the plans we have in place," said Greg Wescott, Elkhorn Area School District administrator. "What we're doing now is nothing that we don't do every year."

"I believe that our schools are as safe as we can reasonably make them without turning the school into a forbidding prison-like structure," said Jim Sorensen, Delavan-Darien School District administrator. "That would go exactly in the face of what I think our community would want-inviting schools that are responsive to the public, and responsive means they have to be a little bit open.

"We are not going to be instituting any new procedures," he said. "Obviously we are on a higher alert when this kind of thing happens, but we have, over the past number of years, instituted a number of safety issues."

Like other schools, Delavan-Darien schools' doors are all locked except one during the school day.

"We keep all of the doors locked except for a single door during school day so that anyone trying to come in the school must come in the door nearest the office.

"But we recognize that most of the doors have glass in them and we have windows to the outside. If anyone is truly determined to come into a building there would be no school that I can imagine in the country that could physically keep someone out (100 percent)."

Walworth County parochial schools are dealing with the same issues and possible changes as the public schools.

"We actively review policies and unfortunately, in this day and age, it's an ongoing concern and has to be reviewed and revisited not on an annual basis but an almost semi-monthly basis," said David Wieters, St. Francis De Sales School principal in Lake Geneva.

"A major change is we're (discussing) adding electronic security doors," he continued. "We already have cameras at our doors and more doors locked that have ever been locked in the past. Ultimately, it is an inconvenience to some people, but my foremost goal is to keep the students safe."


Part 2: Districts look to involve students

By Chris Schultz/The Janesville Gazette

(Published Thursday, Oct. 12, 2006, 5:00 p.m.)

As the recent series of school shootings show, threats are now coming from both students inside and adults outside the schools.

So, schools are looking at getting students involved in providing information necessary to keep tragedies from occurring.

Entry to schools is being monitored and visitors are required to check in at the office and wear identification while walking the hallways.

Lake Geneva makes use of liaison officers from the Lake Geneva Police Department, one in the high school and another that serves the elementary district as a whole.

The officers are the districts' first line of defense to monitor school security and handle crime. They are also the line of communication between the schools and the police department, Gottinger said. Gottinger said the districts also ensure that staff and students know the proper procedures for school lockdowns in case of an emergency.

"You make sure you have everyone aware of the plans you do have," Gottinger said. Administrative staff recently met with the liaison officers to review what to do in case of a school invasion or other emergency.

Gottinger said it was a regular meeting, not tied to recent events. But those events were in the minds of those in the meeting. At Big Foot High School, Walworth, the administration wants to make school security a part of the school culture, said Superintendent Thomas Nykl.

Students must be willing to trust teachers and staff. The culture must be a situation "where students feel comfortable with adults," he said. Students must be comfortable reporting potentially dangerous situations, either what they see or hear, Nykl said.

And not just violence, but situations involving drugs and other contraband. "In Green Bay, it worked," Nykl said. Safety and security issues were addressed at a recent Big Foot School Board meeting, where board members, staff and law enforcement personnel reviewed the school's existing security and suggested changes.

Nykl said that in the short term, Big Foot has done the following:

-- Secured all doors with only one access point monitored by an aide with a walkie-talkie. More staff are out patrolling the hallways between classes.

-- All doors and garage doors are locked and secured when not in use.

-- The board also did a first reading of a beefed-up search policy that allows sniffer dogs in school to search for contraband.

For the long term, the district is exploring:

-- Redesigning the school entry for better security.

-- Allocating funds for community intervention programs for students.

-- Considering ways to develop a more active counseling program for students.

-- Establishing a community committee to explore what the community can offer in activities for elementary and high school students now involved in athletics or organized programs such as 4-H or band. The district is also reaching out to parents and students directly.

Big Foot recently had an informational meeting for parents to discuss drug use and prevention and what resources are available for information or assistance for students with drug abuse problems. On Oct. 19, a similar program is scheduled for students with a series of presentations on drug use, legal consequences of drug use, reporting drugs or other fears and coping with peer pressure.






Home | News Blogs | The Guide | Entertainment | Classifieds | Advertise | Subscribe | Contact | Site Map
© 2006 The Week Extra. All rights reserved.