Overland Park & Leawood

“Nobody wants to be the one who missed something” in school safety

About two weeks ago, someone wrote a few words on a bathroom wall at Olathe North High School. It wasn’t a lot, but it could have been seen as a general threat against the school, said Erin Dugan, Olathe assistant superintendent.

“We have no choice but to take these things seriously,” she said. A police investigation ensued, followed up with three emailed updates to parents keeping them informed of the situation.

Ultimately the police decided there was no credible threat, Dugan said. She wouldn’t say exactly what written on the wall because the investigation is ongoing.

Since the mass school shooting in Newtown, Conn., last year, there has been much talk about what measures schools should take to protect students and staff from the obvious threats. Schools in Johnson and Miami counties have been meeting with law enforcement to study what the most effective forms of protection are.

But less discussed are the ambiguous words and deeds that are a part of school life every day. Is the man who stops his car in the street near a student and gets out with a rag intent on a kidnapping, or did he just have engine problems? Is the guy walking down the street near a school with a hunting bow planning a mass murder or just walking home from the store where he bought it?

“It is very, very difficult,” said Kathleen O’Hara, superintendent of the Archdiocese of Kansas City in Kansas Catholic Schools. “On one hand, educators are accused of not using common sense and overreacting. On the other hand, nobody wants to be the one who missed something.”

The bottom line is, when in doubt, call the police, O’Hara said. School staff is not trained to make judgment calls about what constitutes a threat and what doesn’t, she said. Those things can best be sorted out by having a good working relationship with the police, she said.

O’Hara’s sentiments are echoed by others in the county’s biggest school systems.

But even that can sometimes be tricky. What constitutes doubt? After all it’s not possible to call every heated argument and every piece of graffiti in to police dispatchers.

That’s where it helps to have a good relationship with the students as a foundation, said Dan Carney, director of safety and security for the Blue Valley School District.

“Any time we think there’s a threat being made, we take those things extremely seriously,” he said. “The key is to take a measured approach. No knee-jerk reactions.”

“We put a lot of stock in building a trusting adult relationship with kids,” he said. That interaction gives teachers and staff an idea of what students’ temperaments are and what might be considered normal for a student having a down day or just horsing around.

If teachers know the students well, they can recognize when their behavior departs from the norm, Carney said. A good student-teacher relationship also can encourage students to speak up when they hear disturbing rumors, he said. In past school shootings, he said, the shooters had told their plans to other students beforehand. “But that information didn’t make it to an adult.”

O’Hara said she encourages educators to weigh whether the words were tossed off in the heat of anger or whether some forethought had gone into them. But the school tries to inform students on appropriate ways to express anger before that happens, she said.

Dugan said there’s always a little flexibility in the context of the situation, but “the code of conduct clearly outlines student behavior and if expectations are not met, what the consequences are,” she said.

Olathe will err on the side of investigating all problematic behavior, she said. “While we don’t want to overreact, we find it worse to under-react.”

Shawnee Mission district schools faced a different problem earlier this year with a cluster of four attempted abduction reports in January and February.

Teachers review stranger danger lessons with students and the school works closely with police, district spokeswoman Leigh Anne Neal said in a written statement.

“We continue our efforts to education students on the importance of reporting issues that may seem unusual or concerning to them and educating them as to being aware of how to respond should they find themselves in a ‘stranger danger’ situation,” she said.