Schools are among the safest places in the community but the persistence of shootings — including at West Liberty-Salem High School recently — shows district can always do better, safety experts said.
West Liberty-Salem district leaders are looking at how it can improve security on its K-12 campus, including talking to other Ohio districts that have experienced school shootings.
“We are going to put together a team basically to review our safety plans and to review different accounts about how the day went,” Superintendent Kraig Hissong said.
Police have arrested 17-year-old Ely Serna, who they alleged brought a disassembled shotgun into West Liberty-Salem High School in a backpack on Jan. 20 and assembled it in a bathroom stall. Logan Cole, 16, was shot twice in the side and chest when he entered the restroom and was taken to Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus in critical condition.
Logan’s condition has since improved and he was removed from intensive care last week. His father, Ryan Cole, said in a Facebook post his son has a pellet from the shotgun in his heart that could require surgery.
A second student, Adam Schultz, was also shot with a pellet but didn’t require medical treatment.
The district has started examining possible safety upgrades, Hissong said, such as adding metal detectors, installing metal blinds and hiring a school resource officer.
“We have already had some discussions around those topics but we haven’t made any decisions,” he said.
To help make those decisions, school leaders have contacted Madison Local Schools in Butler County, where a school shooting took place last year.
“We are looking at how they reacted to things and how we will be able to improve our plans,” Hissong said.
Schools are safer when there’s ongoing conversations and regular updates to security protocols, said Kenneth Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, an Ohio-based national consulting firm specializing in school security.
“Schools are safe environments … We need to make sure we do not become complacent or think that we have maxed out on everything we can do or should do to make schools safer,” he said. “It is an ongoing process.”
Some parents in the district said repeatedly last week they believe the school district did a good job when the shooting happened.
“I can’t say enough good about West-Liberty Salem’s staff and the teachers and the way that everything was handled,” said Liz Cheetham, a mother of two high school students.
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People over technology
Students, staff members, administrators and others at schools play a big role in safety, Trump said.
“The reality is that school safety is not just about fortifying the front entrance,” he said. “It’s about what’s beyond that front entrance and the people and the procedures you have in place. Good school safety is a people issue, not a product or a hardware issue.”
Too many schools across Ohio and the country implement technology, Trump said, and don’t do enough with staff and students to make sure they understand what to do in the case of an emergency.
“What we have found because there is a competition for both time and money in schools, it’s become a lot easier for them to take the quick road out by throwing some money for cameras or by doing some quick fixes and some limited training and they are not really focusing on ongoing training and practices,” Trump said.
Schools often focus on stopping shootings, he said, but they aren’t statistically the biggest danger. Everyday threats like someone taking a student away from school without permission can pose problems.
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Hissong praised students and staff members for following ALICE training during the shooting at West Liberty. ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate and is training put on by law enforcement to combat an aggressor.
West Liberty-Salem staff were trained by Champaign County deputies two years ago, Hissong said, and have done updated training since then. The staff members then train the students, Melvin said.
Many students jumped out of windows and ran away from the school to evacuate the area. Middle/High School Principal Greg Johnson and K-12 Assistant Principal Andy McGill have been credited with tackling the suspected shooter and holding him until Champaign County deputies arrived.
“Their swift action and following our procedures saved many lives that day,” Hissong said of both students and staff members.
Changes at West-Liberty?
The district will likely make changes to make sure students are safer.
“We are collecting information and we are going to come up with some practical and reasonable things we can do to improve what is already a successful safety plan to make it better,” Hissong said.
One thing that he has heard students talk about is that they had some difficulties getting windows to open to get out of the building.
“In a lot of cases students jumped out the windows and one thing we noticed through this process is we need to make sure they can get out of those a little easier,” Hissong said. “We are exploring how can we make it easier to escape out those windows without having to force them open.”
West-Liberty Salem is in the process of constructing a new school wing and will upgrade security as part of that project, Hissong said. Now the district can lock all doors on the campus to protect students from outside dangers.
“We are also looking into making a single secure entrance,” he said.
School Resource Officers
West Liberty-Salem doesn’t employ a school resource officer — a deputy or officer assigned specifically to the district to patrol the halls and protect students.
The district is considering adding one, Hissong said, along with many other options.
“What we are really doing is investigating what make sense for us,” he said.
Graham Local Schools added a school resource officer at the start of this school year — the only Champaign County district with a dedicated officer.
“He’s been a great asset over there at Graham,” Champaign County Sheriff Matthew Melvin said. “He is in the school making contact with students and talking with parents day in and day out, and that’s worth it’s weight in gold.”
The Graham deputy is part of a pilot program. The district pays the sheriff’s office for his time and when school is out, he works as a regular deputy on patrol. School resource officers are a valuable tool to keep students safe, Melvin said.
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“It’s a great thing,” Melvin said. “Not only as a deterrent but also it gives the kids someone to talk to. If they know something but they are nervous about calling into dispatch, they already have a connection with the school resource officer that they can go and talk to.”
It can also speed up response times in an emergency, he said.
“If there is an active shooter, he is in the school,” Melvin said.
The Clark County Sheriff’s Office employs several deputies that rotate among the county schools They were established in 2013 following the shooting at Sandy Hook. Clark County Sheriff’s Office didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Madison Local Schools hired two full-time resource officers after the shooting there so that students felt protected at school, according to a video the district produced on safety improvements.
Melvin’s interested in expanding the Champaign County program and schools should contact him if they want to explore it.
“If they are interested, we have talks with the superintendent and principals to get the officers into the schools,” he said.
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Help from other Ohio Schools
The West Liberty-Salem school shooting was the sixth school shooting in Ohio in the past 50 years.
At Madison Junior/Senior High School in southwest Ohio, a high school student shot four other students in February.
The district since has addressed safety concerns, including hiring two officers, purchasing hand-held metal detectors for random checks, and installing a protective film on windows that are difficult to shatter and latches next to classroom doors so students and teachers can lock them.
“Our goal is for our students and our staff and our community to feel as safe as possible in our schools,” Madison Superintendent Curtis Philpot said in a video on the district’s website. “We are very excited about these enhancements.”
The two districts have been in close contact since the shooting. Hissong said he believes West Liberty-Salem can learn from other districts.
“Our event was different from their’s, so that impacts some info we gather,” Hissong said. “But you want to use people who experienced this because it can help you make sure your kids are safer.”