Guns, Drugs, and Textbooks: How safe are our schools?

It has been a headline on repeat for the past few weeks across the nation – mass shooting occurs. As schools in North Dakota return, the fear of “what if” is on the minds of many. In Cavalier County, the three schools and the Cavalier County Sheriff’s Department are being proactive in their efforts to keep students safe and the schools in session.

Posted 9/5/19

By Melissa Anderson

A.L.I.C.E. is one proactive approach to an active threat in the building.  A.L.I.C.E. stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. Every officer at the Sheriff’s Department has undergone A.L.I.C.E. training with a few now certified as instructors. The officers have also attended a three day active shooter training that was organized

“All this training is for a violent, active shooter at a large gathering of people- like a school, hospital, or large event,” Cavalier County Sheriff Greg Fetsch stated.

Langdon Area School District went through active shooter training through A.L.I.C.E along with members of the Cavalier County Sheriff’s Department during this past summer and intends to train the staff later on in the school year. Members of the Sheriff’s Department will assist with the training, also.  Munich Public School has also participated in this particular training.

“Our teachers have all had A.L.I.C.E. active shooter training.  We do hold lockdown drills as well as lockdown/evacuation drills. We hold drills at least twice a year.  This is when the measures are reviewed,” Robert Bubach, superintendent and high school principal of Munich Public Schools, stated.

St. Alphonsus Catholic School has an updated crisis plan that covers situations that the new administrator, Carrie Hope, prays that they never have to put into practice. Much like the public schools, students and faculty practice different drills so they are all familiar with what to do if a situation arises.

“We keep our school doors locked during the days.  We also have surveillance cameras around the school so that I can see all around the school at one time,” Hope shared. “We review the measures in the fall during our inservice.  If different situations around our school/town or area happen, we will also have staff meetings to plan or brainstorm ideas of how or what we would do for those situations. “

A.L.I.C.E training provides age-appropriate drills for all students to ease anxiety and develop preparedness. However, even drills can be a nerve wrecking experience for some despite being necessary to make sure everyone is prepared in case of an event.

“We stress to the students that these are just drills to help us be stronger and prepared together,” Hope stated.

Through A.L.I.C.E. training, administrations receive protocol for events. Having relationships with the local Sheriff’s Department is also very important. Even with the training and the established relationship with those who serve and protect, when news hits that a shooting has taken place, the administrators at the area schools pause to take in the latest violent event to happen.

“Every time an event is on the news, I absolutely think ‘what if this happens at my school.’  In terms of how I handle it-  I realize that one cannot be prepared for every eventuality.  A person cannot also be scared all the time.  The chances of any event happening in any school are small,” commented Bubach.

The LASD administrative team composed of the superintendent Daren Christianson, high school principal Stephanie Hochhalter, and elementary principal Todd Hetler shared that their first thoughts are of the staff, students, and families who are affected by the tragedy.

“Our next thoughts are reflecting on what are we currently doing to protect our staff and students?  Is there anything we should be doing better?” the administration said.

Hope echoed those sentiments, stating that as they learn about different events, St. Alphonsus faculty consider what they would do in that situation, what would be the best plan of action, and how can they prepare if something like that happens at their school.

“The important thing is to stay calm when thinking of the different possibilities but also prepare,” Hope stated.

As the administrators of the schools, the responsibility for the school and its students falls on them.  In Munich, Bubach depends on his experience to help in anticipating possible disruptions.

“In terms of violent events, I don’t think anyone is absolutely ready to react to those,” Bubach shared.

LASD provides active supervision throughout the school day and at events.  The elementary has trained their students and teachers in CHAMPS, which is a proactive approach to teach,  monitor, and re-teach student behavior. The high school teachers will be trained in a similar program, PBIS, throughout the school year.

“Safety measures are discussed with staff and students on an annual basis.  Drills are scheduled for staff and student practice at least once per year,” the administration shared.

At St. A’s, one thing that Hope has adopted is to make her presence known by letting the teachers, students and families know that she is there for them and always available for them.

“I am always walking around the school making sure rules and expectations are being followed.  I am always learning and growing professionally so that I can be the most knowledgeable school administrator as possible,” Hope stated. “I work with our teachers to have them prepared for different situations.  A lot of communication is done so that I am aware of what is happening in our school and community.”

LASD administrators have a similar concept in how they approach relationships within the school. Christianson explained that studies have shown that when students have an emotional connection to at least one adult in the building, they are less likely to commit violent acts.

“Therefore, we are making a conscious effort to give students the opportunity to connect with the adults in their building.  We balance the concept of being a facility that is open to the public with the need to provide a safe environment for our students and staff,” he said.

At Munich and LASD, there are plans for improving the school facilities to make them safer. Bubach shared that Munich has plans to utilize federal funds to purchase “barricuda” barricades which, in the case of an active shooter, will further secure doors during a lockdown situation. In Langdon, the public school has included improved security measures at the entrances of the elementary and high school in their plans. These improvements all hinge on the vote being held on October 1 to secure funding for the school buildings updates.

Training and drills may be able to prepare the schools and police force for the potential event, but that does not eliminate the fear of such a thing actually happening in the rural communities of Cavalier County.

“This is definitely one of our worst fears as law enforcement. All of our officers have an active shooter kit in their vehicle at all times in preparation for a event like this happening. That way they can respond as soon as they are able to get to the location as our job is to stop the threat before anyone else gets hurt,” Fetsch said.

As an officer in Cavalier County for 34 years, Fetsch explained that the protocol and policies for handling these types of situations has never changed. When getting a tip or complaint, it is passed on by the dispatchers to an officer, and it gets checked out.

“Surprisingly we don’t get that many tips when something is happening. A lot of time they come in a couple of days after someone sees suspicious behavior,” Fetsch explained. “There have been numerous times when someone sees something and does not want to get involved or is not sure if they should report it at the time it is happening.”

The Sheriff’s office relies a lot on private citizens to help stop or eliminate many different incidents in the county. Because law enforcement can not be everywhere at once, this dependence on residents to help be the eyes and ears is imperative.  While the policies and protocols of handling this information has not changed, the method of assisting law enforcement has.

“With Project Standup they can report it and let the main office decide if it is something that should be sent to us right away and keep the reporting person out of the loop. That is why this is such a great program,” Fetsch stated.

Project Stand Up For School Safety and Project Stand Up to Drug Crime is a state wide program initiated in 2018. The program can be used by anyone who sees something illegal going on. They can text: DRUGS to 82257 for illegal information. Or if at school or anywhere else to report suspicious behavior threats or violence, text SAFE to 82257.

“We, as North Dakota educators, are always supportive of ways to make our students more safe and secure at school. Project Stand Up provides a simple way for students, and parents alike, to report potential threats to school safety,” said Kirsten Baesler, North Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction, in the 2018 press release regarding Project Stand Up.

The information provided through the confidential text is delivered to a central location before being sent on to school and law enforcement officials in an instantaneous manner. Students, parents, and community members may use the text, 24/7, with the promise that their information will get to authorities quickly without revealing their personal identity. Tips involving student issues like suicide, shootings, larceny, bullying, vandalism and even cheating can be texted at any time and from any place.

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