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In wake of mass shooting, are Chippewa Valley schools safe for kids, educators?

Are you, a parent, a teacher, a student, confident enough is being done to avert a Parkland, Fla., tragedy? It’s a question many people are asking.

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    North High School safety resource officer Chaz Walton shares a laugh Friday with freshman student Amara Frock between classes. Eau Claire school district officials say safety resource officers are one way to help prevent violent situations in schools. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

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    North High School safety resource Officer Chaz Walton talks on Friday with freshman Amara Frock between classes. Eau Claire school district officials say safety resource officers are one way to help prevent violent situations in schools. View more photos at LeaderTelegramPhotos.com.

    Staff photo by Dan Reiland
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    Altoona police Chief Jesse James, right, talks with Kyle Henning, left, and Tim Lima before a public discussion Wednesday at Altoona High School about emergency response plans for how to handle dangerous situations in schools and elsewhere.

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When Eau Claire schools Superintendent Mary Ann Hardebeck first heard about the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., in which 17 people were killed, her first thoughts centered on the tragic repetition of deaths in schools. 

“I thought ‘Oh, no, not again,’” Hardebeck recalled. “Anytime something like this happens to one school ... it hits all of us who work in schools very hard.”

Hardebeck’s thoughts about the shooting moved quickly to the schools she oversees, to the safety of the 10,000-plus students, teachers and staff who attend and work in those buildings. Could such an incident happen here? Is the district’s emergency response plan adequate to ensure safety and minimize danger in such a situation? Is there anything district officials could do to be better prepared?

“You can’t help but have your mind go to the schools where we work,” she said. “Should we do anything different in terms of ensuring safety in our schools here? Are we doing enough? Incidents like this make you think about all of that and more.”

Other administrators, teachers and staff at Chippewa Valley schools, as well as local law enforcement officers, say the massacre in Parkland serves as a wake-up call about the reality that schools increasingly are dealing with dangers typically not seen before the tragic Columbine High School shooting in 1999. 

It also represents an opportunity to make sure emergency response plans at schools and elsewhere in communities ensure safety as much as possible, they say, and to spark community conversations about the topic. 

The Parkland incident has prompted intense debate on both sides of the gun issue. Many, including Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students, say the shooting is the latest evidence that stricter gun controls must be enacted. Others oppose that idea, saying more guns, not fewer, are needed in schools and other public places to ensure safety. 

President Donald Trump and some Republicans have proposed arming teachers in schools to allow school staff to react to shooters. Trump also recently hosted a group of bipartisan lawmakers at the White House to discuss reform, and the president said he’s open to strengthening federal background checks for gun purchases and increasing the minimum legal age to buy guns to 21.

Many school officials in the Chippewa Valley say they oppose arming teachers. Regional school districts already have close working relationships with local law enforcement agencies, they say, and those officers are specifically trained to react to dangerous incidents, training that teachers and other school staff lack.  

“Everyone wants safety in our schools,” said Michelle Golden, director for human resources and public relations in the Chippewa Falls school district. “We believe the best way to ensure a safe environment is to have close working relations with our law enforcement officers and to have plans in place for when dangerous situations happen.”

Using guns in classrooms as a deterrent to danger or as a way to react to a dangerous situation in schools “is not our role,” Golden said. “Our role is educating kids.”

Increasing the number of guns in schools would add to danger, not decrease it, Altoona school board President Robin Elvig said. Rather than prevent possible school shootings, she said, arming teachers would lead to a host of problems. 

“It’s a bad idea. It puts teachers way more at risk,” Elvig said. “They would have to always be worried about whether the gun is secure, whether anyone might have access to it at some point. It would put more responsibilities on teachers, the same teachers we keep asking to do more and more.”

Elvig said law enforcement officers, not teachers, have the expertise to deal with situations involving school shootings.

“That just isn’t (teachers’) job,” Elvig said of having guns in the classroom. “In essence we’re talking about putting assault rifles in the hands of people who aren’t trained to use them. Why would we ever do that?”

Fourteen teachers in the Altoona and Eau Claire school districts interviewed for this story said they oppose having guns in schools. While they understand the concept of using guns as a deterrent, they believe law enforcement officers with years of training for how to respond to emergencies is a better plan than armed teachers in case of an active shooter at their school. 

 “There is no way we want to be carrying guns at school,” said Altoona High School teacher Todd Lenz, who has taught in the district for 19 years. “We’re not trained for that ... We should leave that job to law enforcement ... It’s what they’re trained for.” 

Eau Claire school board President Chris Hambuch-Boyle agrees. 

“To add more guns in schools is not what I would do,” she said. “I don’t see how that makes our schools more safe.” 

Focus on plans

When a bomb threat was discovered Nov. 13 at Chippewa Falls High School, teachers and staff  took immediate action. 

They enacted a school lockdown, with classroom doors and school entrances locked and secured. Law enforcement officers arrived within minutes of the discovery of the threat and worked with administrators to ensure safety and find the perpetrator. 

That situation was the result of closely coordinated efforts between school staff and law enforcement to fine-tune the district’s emergency response plan, Golden said. After that incident, they reviewed how that situation played out in an effort to update the plan, she said. 

A district safety team meets monthly to review its emergency response plan, and the Parkland shooting has furthered those discussions, Golden said. She praised Chippewa Falls and Chippewa County law enforcement for working closely with the school district. 

“We looked at the Florida situation and said, ‘What can we do here to make sure something like that doesn’t happen here,’” she said. “And if something like that were to happen here, how do we have the best plan to respond to that kind of situation.”

The Eau Claire school district’s emergency response plan played out Nov. 8, when a bomb threat was discovered at Memorial High School. Hambuch-Boyle praised school administration and law enforcement for their response.  

“We have collaboration between the district, police and student transit to make sure everyone is working together in those situations,” she said. “It is imperative that we have good plans in place with everyone on the same page. We review those plans to make sure we are ready in case something bad does happen.”

Altoona police Chief Jesse James said his department and others across northwestern Wisconsin have put renewed focus in recent years on emergency response plans in schools and at other community locations. Such plans are necessary in a world in which shootings and other dangerous situations seem increasingly common, he said. 

When James heard about the Parkland shooting, he decided to host a public forum to let Altoona community members know his department has emergency response efforts in place. On Wednesday, he and school resource Officer Jon Lauscher talked at Altoona High School about police efforts to ensure safety.

“This shooting in Florida has people thinking a lot about what would happen in their own communities and what plans are in place to try to keep people safe,” he said. “We want to let people know we have a plan.” 

Changing world

In 1986, his sophomore year at Superior High School, Lenz, the Altoona teacher, brought a shotgun to school for a demonstration speech he would give about how to clean a gun. 

“I just walked right into school with it,” Lenz recalled. “I told school staff why I had the gun at school, and they were fine with it. Can you imagine doing that now? Now you can’t even have a gun in a case on school grounds.”

Back then, Lenz used guns to hunt. He sometimes gathered with friends in a field to shoot semi-automatic weapons at targets. Worries about guns didn’t seem to be a topic of national debate, he said. When he first got into teaching 25 years ago, school shootings weren’t on anyone’s radar. 

Shootings are now a frequent topic of discussion at Altoona and other schools. Lenz said he finds himself imagining what he would do if a shooter entered Altoona High School where he teaches. He wonders why school shootings have become more common.  

“It used to be we did drills for tornadoes. Fires. Now you have to add active shooter training to the list. It’s a part of our lives as teachers now.”

Prevention efforts

Friday morning, Chaz Walton strode the halls of North High School on the lookout for students. He nodded at one student and then stopped when a freshman girl he knows approached. 

“Hey, how are you doing?” Walton, an Eau Claire police officer and school resource officer at North, asked 15-year-old Amara Frock. 

Frock and Walton talked for a couple of minutes and shared a laugh before Frock headed off to class. Walton continued down the hallway and a moment later ran into a North staff member and a senior student. They discussed details about a situation involving that student and agreed to meet subsequently in Walton’s office to address the issue. 

Such interactions are key to his job, Walton said, key to knowing what’s happening at school by building a rapport with students. Such efforts sometimes stave off potentially dangerous situations and can get students needed assistance, he said. 

“This is one way we can try to keep things safe at school,” Walton said. “This is what we do, build those bridges with kids.”

Crisis response plans are a necessity in school districts, said Hardebeck, the Eau Claire superintendent. But Walton and four other school resource officers in Eau Claire schools are an essential resource to preventing potentially dangerous situations, she said. Their discussions with students “can be invaluable” in averting problems.

 “At end of the day we can have all of the security measures, armed people and response plans in place in our schools,” she said. “But a key to preventing violence is to know what is going on in your schools, the communication. If you see something strange or out of the ordinary, we need to report it. We have to let our students and teachers know we need to take that approach.”

Lenz agrees that communication between school staff and students is essential. Schools increasingly are being asked to take on roles once filled by parents, he said, and involving students in school affairs may curb the potential for violence. 

“Schools are a community place, a place where we all are invested,” he said. “What can we do together to make this a place that is safe, a place where kids can have a positive experience? That is what we need to continue to focus on. ... If we do that, maybe violent situations don’t have to happen.”

Contact: 715-830-5911, julian.emerson@ecpc.com


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