In this guest column, Galva Superintendent Doug O’Riley discusses the issue of school safety.

(Ed. Note — In this guest column, Galva Superintendent Doug O’Riley discusses the issue of school safety.)

There are about 90,000 public schools in the Unites States, and school safety is at the forefront of concern for all of them, particularly when it comes to firearms being brought to school.  

In Galva, preparedness is a cycle that never ends.  Modifications and differing potential scenarios impact the decisions that administrators, teachers and staff make on a regular basis.  

Each year, Galva administrators meet with local law enforcement agencies, review crisis plans, listen to new strategies, review new technologies and implement changes within our district. Staff members are informed, teachers review basic plans with students and drills are conducted to exercise preparedness.  

Additionally, administrators and teachers attend professional seminars concerning school safety during the school year, and new ideas are shared on a regular basis. 

One new strategy implemented this year is called Navigate Prepared. It is a computer and cell phone application which allows safety plans to be shared virtually with law enforcement in real time. Floor plans, interior 360-degree views of every room in the district, live access to video camera feeds, and contact information is immediately accessible to law enforcement in the event of a crisis.  

Allowing this high level of remote access insures that police are better informed, and face fewer surprises, in the event of an emergency. In an emergency, response time to the target area would be greatly improved.

Police also participate in our crisis drills. Crisis drills vary from year to year, with differing scenarios utilized to force our participants to use differing strategies to avoid or escape the potential threat.  

The strategies that a third- floor teacher in the elementary school uses, might be completely different than the strategies a high school teacher would use. Over the years, crisis drills have evolved to be more realistic. At times, there has been controversy over how realistic these drills should be. Sometimes, there is a fine line between being prepared for a drill, and being terrorized by one.

A few years ago, I attended a training conducted by a parent who lost her first grader in the Newtown shooting. She agonized that her school’s drills were not realistic enough. While her child’s teacher had drilled by hiding her kids in the classroom restroom, the teacher had never actually closed the restroom door with all of her students in the confined space. When the terrible event began, she and her students packed themselves into that little room. That door always closed under normal use with just one person in the room, but it was pinned open with so many people in the room, and wouldn’t close, leaving the entire group visible and exposed to the shooter.

It is impossible to prepare for every scenario.  Sometimes, it’s better to hunker down and hide.  Sometimes it’s better to evacuate and disperse. We hope that drills give the needed practice.  Ultimately if an event happens, it will be the real-time, problem solving skills of everyone involved which will need to fall into place for that specific event. From a facilities standpoint, Galva’s buildings were not designed to be fortresses. New schools have security vestibules which highly restrict access to school visitors. They also have physical barriers, and hallways designed to funnel traffic. Cameras are strategically placed, and there are no blind spots. Windows are shatter proof, locked doors are impenetrable.  

In older schools, like Galva’s, retrofitted cameras, remote door locks and traffic patterns have been in place to increase safety. But, as in all older buildings, there are structural vulnerabilities which are very expensive to rectify.

There were about 60 school shootings nationwide in 2017. Almost all of them were conducted by current students, with bad intent. Those students were welcomed into their buildings, along with every other normal student attending school the day of the tragedy. The highest levels of building security, and the drills did not keep the attackers away, because the attack came from within.

This is where communication comes in. It is the strongest weapon against attack. We need everyone in the school community to report potential threats. We need help for our troubled students before they get to the point of destructive despair.  And, in large part, this responsibility falls on parents and people in the home. Weapon procurement, radicalization via social media and first person shooter games, and detailed planning doesn’t happen in schools. It happens in bedrooms and basements, with limited or no supervision, and unrestricted access to technology, weapons and ammunition.

On Feb. 22, during a discussion on school safety in Social Studies class, one of our students reported that she knew a student who had boasted about someday bringing a gun to school.  

Her words were taken seriously. As it turns out, the student she mentioned was enrolled in another district, and there was no immediate threat in Galva schools. Still, law enforcement was immediately notified, parents were notified within 30 minutes, and the school district 30 miles away was then notified. This was done, even when the threat could not be substantiated.  

Again, communication is the key element for keeping security in place. Classes continued uninterrupted, and no one was in harm’s way.

The Board of Education reviews policies, and also keeps informed about school safety. Decisions are made regarding practices and facilities, and the administration is encouraged and allowed to do their jobs to keep our students safe.

Over the past few days, I have heard many well-meaning people try to improve the complex situation regarding gun violence in America. The approach needs to be multi-faceted and well-constructed by people working together without political or economic agendas.  

Personally, after 30 years in education, I would not be in favor of arming teachers and staff members. I think there is too much margin for error in doing so. I would like to see gun sales prohibited to anyone without a high school diploma or G.E.D. I also believe harsh penalties should be imposed upon anyone who supplies weapons, or allows unfettered access to minors, if those weapons are then used to commit a crime. Unless children are with responsible supervising adults, they simply shouldn’t have access to firearms.    

By making firearm acquisition more difficult for minors, and prosecuting adult enablers for unlawful access, hopefully the number of school shootings would drop substantially.