Security has become a central focus of school districts across Nebraska, but are all districts on an equal playing field? One state senator says “no.”
Lunch time at Southern Valley Schools in rural southwest Nebraska.
Photos by Ryan Robertson, NET News
ABOVE: Michael Longsine, a senior at Southern Valley, said he's always felt safe at school. He said the new security cameras and a new policy of locking all doors at 8:30 in the morning are ways the school is working to keep students safe.
BELOW: Chance Kennedy, a senior at Southern Valley, said while he thinks some teachers should be allowed to carry a concealed weapon, he thinks his school's security features are more than enough to make him feel safe.
Two-dozen elementary school students jockeyed for position around a handful of tables. One boy tried to trade his pudding for his classmate’s fruit snacks.
While the students laughed and ate, their teachers took up positions around the room, keeping an eye out for potential danger.
Southern Valley is a consolidated school district with just 420 students, K-12. Located in a rural part of a rural county, it’s eight miles to the nearest town.
But Michael Longsine, a senior at Southern Valley, said he’s never felt the isolated location meant he was in danger.
“There’s cameras everywhere you look. I feel pretty safe. If something happened they can just look at the cameras and find who did it,” Longsine said.
He was referring to the $60,000, state-of-the-art surveillance system Southern Valley schools recently installed.
Superintendent Chuck Lambert said he moved quickly to install the cameras after the issue of school safety came to the forefront in recent years. Lambert said he’s also tried to limit the number of entries into the building as a way to increase security.
“But that’s something that we’re always trying to improve on,” Lambert said, “I think no matter what we do, it’s always going to be a concern. I’m afraid it’s not going to go away just given the way society is right now.”
Since December 2012, when 26 students and teachers were killed by a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, there have been more than 30 school shootings reported across the country.
The now seemingly common stories of violent acts unfolding at American schools are prompting many officials to re-evaluate school security plans.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Psychology Professor Mario Scalora is at the forefront of putting those plans into action.
Scalora has been a clinical psychologist for 25 years, and he’s been working in the area of violence prediction and management for 15 years.
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Professor Mario Scalora teaches psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and is a leading expert in the area of violence prediction and management. He said violence in schools is nothing new, but over the last 20 years, we are becoming more aware of what he calls acts of "targeted violence," meaning a more focused act of violence driven by a grievance. In order to deal with this, Scalora says through the implementation of what he calls "threat assessment," educators should be trained to look for specific warning signs and learn how to take a "dignified, preventative" approach.
“As a society we’ve always had to deal with the threat of violence, but I think the awareness of acts of targeted violence, that are more specifically focused acts of violence that are driven by a grievance, has gotten more attention over the last 20 years,” Scalora said.
There have been just two shootings at Nebraska schools in recent history. A 1995 shooting in Chadron and a 2011 shooting in Omaha; both involved male students with no previous disciplinary issues. Scalora said that’s typical when dealing with cases of targeted violence.
“All of the sudden now, [the shooters] don’t fit the paradigms of the bad actor that you would see getting screened out of certain jobs or being segregated because of their violence and their impulsivity,” Scalora said.
While no amount of locked doors or security cameras will stop every violent episode, Scalora said schools must still balance the need for safety with the duty to educate.
“People are very sensitive to the notion of how you structure things in a way for security that doesn’t also intrude with the perception of a warm, inviting environment,” Scalora said.
No one knows that balancing act better than Joseph Wright, the Lincoln Public Schools' director of security.
He said in addition to “hard security” like cameras and locked doors, empowering a school’s staff plays a critical role in establishing a safe learning environment.
“When you enter an LPS school, you’ll be met very affirmatively by our staff right away. They’ll look you in the eye, say, ‘Welcome to our school. How can we help you?’ You’re recognized that you’re in the school; someone is going to be right there with you, to see what you’re doing. And if it doesn’t look right or something is going on, they’ll call for help,” Wright said.
But according to Nebraska State Senator Mark Christensen, not every district can wait for that call to be answered.
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Senator Mark Christensen represents Nebraska's 44th District. He said his proposed bill, LB 879, would offer school districts more options when it comes to protecting students. He said the idea isn't to "arm every teacher," but to "allow individual school districts to decide what's best" when it comes to student safety.
Christensen said in addition to having limited funds, because of their locations, rural schools can’t always rely on law enforcement to respond quickly in an emergency.
“You compare Lincoln and Omaha--that have the higher budgets, higher amount of kids—they have their own security. You go out in rural areas and smaller towns don’t have their own police force. They rely upon the sheriff’s departments to respond for whichever community they are in,” Christensen said.
Christensen proposed a similar bill in 2010, after the Virginia Tech massacre, but that bill stalled in committee.
The Nebraska State Education Association and the Nebraska State Patrol oppose arming teachers in schools.
Furnas County Sheriff Kurt Kapperman, whose jurisdiction covers Southern Valley Schools, said it’s good the Legislature is addressing school safety, but he isn’t sure Senator Christensen’s bill, in its current form, is the answer.
“I won’t say that I adamantly won’t support it, but there would have to be a whole lot of things that would have to be put in as far as training and what our expectations are going to be of the people that are going to be in the schools having [guns] before I would ever support it,” Sheriff Kapperman explained.
Chance Kennedy, a senior at Southern Valley, said while controversial, he thinks arming teachers is a good idea.
“If someone did happen to come in with a gun and we couldn’t get to him, and a teacher had a gun that [saw] him in the hallway or something walking around, [the teacher] could shoot him. And that could save lives,” Kennedy said.
Arming teachers aside, Professor Scalora said perhaps the more pressing issue should be finding ways to prevent school violence, instead of reacting to it.
Scalora said with the right kind of training and education, what he calls “threat assessment,” potentially violent episodes may be prevented altogether.
Which would mean students like those at Southern Valley can focus on what’s important, like how many fruit snacks a pudding is really worth?