MCBAIN — McBain Superintendent Steve Prissel has been in education for over 20 years and remembers when they first started doing lockdowns in schools.
When districts started doing the procedure, which restricts movement within a school in case of an intruder or other school threat, he described it as a “real uncomfortable feeling‘ that “made you feel out of sorts.‘
When you think of a school, you think safety, he said. It didn’t feel right to do the lockdown in a school.
But now kids are used to it.
The Cadillac News reached out to different school districts in our area to talk about school safety. Many said all you have to do is turn on the news or pick up a paper to see how the world can be an unsafe place for kids, in and out of schools.
However, schools aren’t being complacent while the world is changing around them.
They want to make sure they can keep kids safe, give students and parents peace of mind on campus and let them know “that the safety and security is a high priority for us if not the highest,‘ said Evart Middle School principal Jason O’Dell.
The following are the different ways schools strive to keep students safe.
Training, drills, lockdowns and active shooters
We live in a period where professional development is necessary to practice lockdown drills for possible active shooter situations, O’Dell said.
A lockdown drill could be for a stranger in the building or if law enforcement has a situation at a neighboring home adjacent to the school.
This did happen once when Evart police were looking for someone after a bank robbery in town two blocks from the school. They didn’t know where the assailants were going so they locked down the school, O’Dell said.
Shaina Biller, director of accountability and assessment at Cadillac Area Public Schools' central office, said they use a “multi-pronged approach to keeping students safe.‘
The school district works with consultants across the state and Michigan State Police. Last year MSP did a district-wide training on school shooters.
Throughout the year the school does lockdowns and safe mode drills. This makes sure everyone is comfortable and knows what the concrete plans are for intruders in the building and reunification procedures.
The more it’s practiced and understood the more safe people will be, Biller said.
Paul Fowler, Mesick's school safety officer, used his background experience with the Wexford County Sheriff’s Office to increase safety and security with the schools’ drills. He changed up drills and procedures and took them from a static standpoint to make it more fluid and real-world, he said.
They evolved the fire drill as well. Before, when the fire alarm sounded, everybody stood and exited the door. Now it’s more like an evacuation and backup plans are put in place, he said.
The importance of drills is that they can be changed up so people can think through different situations.
“It’s an ever-evolving thing we have to be prepared for,‘ Fowler said.
Access to the schools
A big safety concern that all of the school districts expressed was making sure staff know who is in the building and where. That means controlling who has access to getting into the building.
O’Dell works with emergency management director Mark Watkins and local police and fire to make sure entries are secure. They make sure there are certain access points to filter traffic through to monitor who’s in the school, he said.
Prissel said at McBain schools people do not have access to the interior of the school unless they go through the office staff. There is a buzzer at the door the person has to ring it. Then the office staff let them in to check into the office.
The school district is currently building a preschool and Prissel said it will also have locked doors with people having to buzz in to enter. The school will also work with the local fire department and law enforcement so they will be able to get into the building in the case of an emergency.
All CAPS schools are also going through construction right now and getting improved school safety. The elementary schools will get done first, then Mackinaw Trail Middle School and then the high school complex.
All doors are locked throughout the school day and staff make sure they’re secure at all times. Currently, staff members use a key code to get into the building but that will be switching to using a fob to enter the building after upgrades are completed.
The district is currently putting in a secure vestibule at Franklin Elementary School. People have to go through the initial doors and then through the vestibule and glass entryway. A speaker system lets the office staff talk to them so the visitor has to say why they want to enter the building.
Biller said the office staff is able to analyze the visitor and then let them in. It provides that extra layer of protection before the person is permitted into the school, she said.
Security cameras, alarms and other safety methods
However, lockdowns and drills are just one part of school safety. Fowler said school safety is “everything‘ and there’s not much that isn’t encompassed within it.
His position was actually a big part of the school’s steps toward safety and is a brand new position they created last year through grant money.
“For school safety that’s their big major step for providing a safe school environment,‘ he said.
The biggest thing he does is maintain the safety and security of the school and maintain order. It’s completely different every day and he does problem-solving to help the school keep moving forward.
He could deal with an internal or external issue. He could handle a disagreement between students, a student playing hooky, unapproved people on school grounds or potential “bad guys.‘ Anything to make the school run better.
“The better functioning the school is, the safer it is,‘ he said.
One “concrete example‘ of another school safety initiative is Evart schools building a new traffic loop at the elementary school for the upcoming year, O’Dell said.
This will alleviate the traffic that caused tons of situations with students and traffic so they can keep students safe and coming to school. They want the students to get onto the property safely, leave the property safely and be safe while they are on the property.
Prissel said in our time, people associate school safety with intruders and active shooters, “which is pretty scary in a school setting.‘ However, it also entails tornadoes and severe weather, traffic flow and bus safety.
After the preschool is complete the school plans to change the traffic flow nearby to improve safety for buses and for kids.
There’s also safety measures with the athletic department, looking at concussions, and trying to keep kids as safe as possible.
For CAPS, one thing the district is prioritizing with the bond and grants is upgrading all of the security cameras that they have. The image is more clear, certain sounds recorded like shots fired will alert office staff and backlight will not interrupt the image, CAPS Chief Financial Officer Emily Kearney said.
The school district is also upgrading its radios. It will get 800 megahertz radios. In case of an emergency, they won’t lose contact with each other and these new radios can let them contact police while the old ones could not.
Biller said they have 74 security cameras throughout the district currently and are upgrading to 90. The school district is getting 30 radios with the upgrade.
Resources, smaller versus larger school districts
There are some options for safety through state-level grants. But, obviously, the size of the district determines the amount of funding they can get, Biller said.
Funding options are out there, it’s just a matter of trying to get them.
“Obviously everyone could use more funding,‘ she said.
Kearney said although districts are differently sized and require different positions, all still need to do the same work. The work is always there, it’s just how the district decides to get it done, she said.
Fowler said when it comes to resources, it’s always doing the most with what they have.
If they have a little, they do the most they can. If they have a lot more, they still do the most they can, he said.
O’Dell said Evart schools have applied for MSP grants in the past and have gotten some. To update their security they’re working with professionals who help them pursuing different grants.
“We’re constantly looking for new resources as well,‘ he said.
He thinks as a smaller, rural school they do have fewer resources to put into safety. Even with that, there are plenty of options, they just have to dig and find them and the local community foundation has been very supportive.
“We do have support, but yes it is always a challenge to find dollars,‘ he said.
Relationship with the kids, parents
All of the school districts expressed that they do believe students feel safe there.
O’Dell said one thing the school wants is to have open lines of communication with students and parents. There are social workers and professionals who work with kids before they get to a higher rate of distress and could potentially try to harm themselves or others.
The professionals work with the kids to build better relationships and create more trust. It’s that feeling of being part of a family that gives you a “safe feeling,‘ he said.
“We can’t control what happens outside of our doors but we can be prepared for different situations that arise,‘ he said.
Fowler said parents come up to him and say they’re really glad to see him there helping keep the kids safe. Prissel also thinks students feel safe in McBain schools, which is a real compliment to the community.
What poses the biggest threat to schools and student safety is actually the unpredictability of situations.
Things aren’t just happening in major cities and urban areas. Obviously, they hope nothing would happen in McBain but “you’ve got to be prepared in these situations,‘ he said.
Does Biller go to school worried? No, because she believes they have good preventative measures in places.
As for the students, the school does a perception survey twice a year. The number one thing students say is they feel safe in the school, kindergarten through senior years, Biller said.
What she appreciates about students from the district is that they are not afraid to report something suspicious. The kids see something suspicious on social media and report it to the adults “trusting that we will follow through,‘ she said.
“They themselves want to be safe,‘ Biller said.