The 14 members of the spent Tuesday morning at the Spencer Road Library talking about safety in schools.
The task force met for the first time since its formation in late December following the tragic shootings at an elementary school in Newtown, CT. In a Community Commons room at the library, the task force heard four presentations about school preparation, mental health and school resource officers and how they related to making sure schools were safe.
While the task force has no legislative powers—it can't force any school to do anything—the goal for Tuesday's meeting was simply start the dialogue and share ideas about how to make sure schools are safe. Starting the conversation were representatives from schools.
Kim Carter, representing Fort Zumwalt, explained what the district does to promoting school safety. In addition to active shooter drills—the district does two a year, but will likely increase that number to six in the future—a key part of Fort Zumwalt's plan is identifying troubled kids. Carter said the school looks early on for kids who may be at risk to themselves or others. The school then monitors and makes sure the kids get help.
In addition to running drills, Carter said Zumwalt has school resource officers—SROs—at each of the high schools. Carter said the SROs, along with other policies like locking doors help maintain safety.
Resource officers were a big talking point of the meeting. St. Peters Police Officer Patrick Fitzgerald, an SRO at Francis Howell North, told the task force that SROs were created to introduce school-aged students to police in situations that don't involve handcuffs. He said the position has allowed him to interact with students in positive situations.
As an SRO, Fitzgerald said he's dealt with every crime imaginable, except for murder or an active shooter. He told the task force that if it happens in society, it happens in school. His boss, St. Peters Police Chief Tom Bishop, said the introduction of SROs has been one of the best things the police department has done. He said it results in fewer trips to schools and has helped police the schools.
A parent at the meeting wondered why, if SROs worked in high schools, funding couldn't be routed to put an officer at every school. Bishop said in high school, the officer is still acting like an officer—breaking up fights, dealing with drugs and things like that. As the students get younger, it becomes a different job, a security job. Bishop said that in his opinion a security job wasn't the best use of law enforcement.
St. Charles County Sheriff Tom Neer said an SRO at schools wouldn't eliminate the threat of a shooter at schools. He said it may deter someone from going to the school if they knew an officer was on duty, however, he pointed out that Columbine had an SRO on duty when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris killed 13 people at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., in 1999.
St. Charles County Sheriff's Department Captain Dave Todd said the odds of an active shooter are actually less than the odds of a tornado hitting the school. Todd said he reviewed the current procedures for the schools in the area and found them to be solid—especially lockout procedures. He said the lockdown plans are better than an SRO at eliminating an active shooter because a lockdown helps keep things in an orderly fashion.
Todd and others stressed that, while they want things to be safe, schools are places for kids first.
"If I was in control, I'd treat every place like a presidential visit, but you can't make a school into a fortress," Todd said.
Another topic at the meeting was mental health. Fort Zumwalt Superintendent Bernard DuBray, who was named chairman of the task force, said the easiest solution for school safety would be to simply arm staff members, but a longer term solution has to be tackling mental health. He said Zumwalt has young kids already showing signs of serious mental illness and that to really get to the heart of problem, more mental health funds are needed.
Katrina Harper with Crider Health Center said funding was a big issue. She said people are willing serve, and schools are ready to receive the help, but often the desire to serve exceeds reality of funding. She said mental health needed to be made a priority.
Task force member and President and Chief Executive Officer of Crider Center Laura Heebner said eliminating the stigma associated with mental health issues is a big step that needs to be taken. She said parents who have sick kids with a high temperature will immediately take them to the doctor however, they don't do the same when the kid exhibits signs of a mental illness. She stressed that both are illnesses that need to addressed.
The Task Force is accepting public comment in writing. Concerned citizens may leave comments with staff at the next task force meeting, email to Kelley Gibbs at email@example.com, fax to 636.949.7521 addressed to the Task Force or send comments by United States Mail to: 100 N. Third Street, Suite 318, St. Charles, MO 63301. All comments will be shared with the Task Force. Comments should focus on information that would be of benefit to the Task Force generally.
The next scheduled meeting of the task force, the last of two on the schedule, is set for Jan. 22.