"We also make our students aware that if they see something that is suspicious to them, they should contact our staff and security." -- Gahanna Lincoln principal Bobby Dodd

Leaders from central Ohio school districts say first-responder relationships, regular staff and student training and technology upgrades help provide a safer learning environment for all involved.

Safety in schools is not an absolute given, considering as recently as April 10, a man with a gun opened fire inside his estranged wife's elementary school classroom in San Bernardino, California, killing her and one of her students.

According to a report published in fall of 2016, the FBI identified 200 active-shooter incidents involving 205 shooters in the United States between 2000 and 2015. The incidents occurred in educational environments, at businesses, malls, houses of worship, health care facilities and on military properties. According to the report, 88 incidents occurred in business areas and malls, accounting for 44 percent. That was followed by 45 incidents at educational environments, accounting for 23 percent.

In looking at incidents occurring between 2000 and 2015, 578 victims were killed and 696 were wounded.

But central Ohio systems such as Westerville and Gahanna make use of technology, such as radios and cameras, as well as law enforcement resources to be aware of and ready to respond to concerns.

Westerville teamwork

Debbie Meissner, director of health and safety for the Westerville City School District, said the district enjoys an active partnership with local safety services personnel.

"I cannot emphasize enough the strong partnership that exists between school personnel, four law enforcement jurisdictions, the Otterbein Police Department, two sheriff departments, two fire departments, our mental health partners and numerous other community stakeholders," Meissner said.

"The effective communication that exists within this partnership is our strongest strategy that allows us to maintain a safe learning environment for all," she said.

Meissner said a safety committee meets regularly to refine its process.

Long before the term Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate was even coined, she said, Westerville schools personnel started discussing and planning for an active-threat response with local law enforcement partners.

"Staff and students are trained to move to safety," she said. "School leaders are educated to share information involving a potential safety issue immediately and transparently."

Meissner said this allows all of those involved to make the best decision based on the information available.

"Our law-enforcement jurisdictions assist us in training our active-threat response," she said. "At this moment, the Westerville Division of Police is using Run, Hide, Fight as their training model."

Meissner said safety is a daily focus and is constantly evolving as the world changes.

Greg Viebranz, the school district's communications and technology director, said the district also has technologies in place in the event of an active situation.

"(Police) can view our security cameras and our technologies," he said. "In the event of an active situation, they have the ability to tap into things in our district to help them with a response."

He said the district recently improved its radio system, allowing every building to reach first-responders.

"When there have been false alarms or misunderstandings of something occurring, our response time is unbelievable," Viebranz said. "That adds an element of comfort in the event something occurs."

Gahanna resources

Gahanna Lincoln High School Principal Bobby Dodd said each day a number of administrators, campus security and school resource officers are on campus to provide security for staff and students.

"We have increased the number of security cameras on campus and have multiple security staff utilizing the cameras to monitor our large geographical area," Dodd said.

"We also make our students aware that if they see something that is suspicious to them, they should contact our staff and security," he said.

Dodd said the district also works very closely with the Gahanna Division of Police to address situations where the local authorities may need to be involved.

"We practice school safety drills during the year and our staff has meaningful conversations with our students about what to do in case of an emergency in different areas of the campus," Dodd said.

Gahanna police Sgt. Matt Kissel said school resource officers facilitate training at all schools in Gahanna, including private institutions.

"Our schools use the ALICE program," he said. "Each of our SROs (school resource officers) are ALICE-trained instructors in the program. The acronym does not have to be done in order. They are taught to choose the best option for the given circumstances."

Kissel said the schools conduct training throughout the year to ensure children's safety.

"In Ohio, the schools must train and run drills four times a year," he said.

"The first is usually a discussion with the students about the appropriate responses and how to execute ALICE during a lockdown drill. Each conversation is tempered to be age-appropriate," he said.

In addition, Kissel said, some of the elementary schools read the book "I'm Not Scared ... I'm Prepared" by author Julia Cook.

The book enhances the concepts taught through ALICE and makes them applicable to children of all ages in a non-fearful way.

"The students then conduct actual drills for exterior threats and interior threats during the year," Kissel said. "An important point to make is that ALICE can be implemented anywhere.

"Following the acronym and its options, it can be applied at a place of worship, business, restaurant or wherever you may be," he said.

Sandy Hook Promise

In partnership with Sandy Hook Promise, a national, nonprofit organization led by several family members whose loved ones were killed in the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14, 2012, in Newtown, Connecticut, Westerville has offered several programs during the 2016-17 school year.

Meissner said the "Say Something" program was piloted at Westerville Central High School and Walnut Springs Middle School in the fall of 2016. Its purpose is to empower young people to look for warning signs, signals and threats -- especially in social media -- and to say something to a trusted adult to get help.

"Youth Mental Health First Aid" was an eight-hour training program offered to 40 school, community and law enforcement personnel on Jan. 3 at the Early Learning Center. It was designed to teach parents, caregivers, teachers, peers and neighbors how to help adolescents who are experiencing a mental health or addiction challenges or are in crisis.

"Start With Hello," a program designed to overcome student social isolation and help create a school culture of inclusion, was piloted in Westerville elementary school buildings.

Stephanie Morris, of Dini von Mueffling Communications, said Sandy Hook Promise has delivered more than 880 in-school Know the Signs programs across Ohio.

Her communications firm handles all publicity for Sandy Hook Promise.

"Columbus City Council passed a resolution last winter officially naming the 'Start With Hello' Call-to-Action week, which takes place every February," Morris said.

She said "Start With Hello" and "Say Something" are equally popular among schools.

" 'Start With Hello' focuses on social inclusion, violence prevention and helps prevent bullying, while 'Say Something' teaches youth and teens how to identify someone exhibiting at-risk behaviors and how to properly intervene by telling a trusted adult before that person harms themselves or others," Morris said.

Tami Santa, Student Assistance Program coordinator for Westerville schools, said she facilitates the efforts of those who provide building support intervention and programs, such as those offered through Sandy Hook Promise.

She said simple concepts such as "Say Something," and being intentional about making it part of everyday language, helps provide a safe environment for students.

Viebranz said Westerville has worked diligently to build an understanding among students that the right thing to do when they become aware of a potential threat is to tell a trusted adult.

"I think it's important for parents and students to understand that even in situations when a student is only joking or fooling around, it's taken seriously by law enforcement and district officials," he said.

"We have had incidents when a student writes something on a bathroom wall that's a threat to security of a building or student," Viebranz, said, adding that those things are taken very seriously.

"We appreciate parents enforcing to their children to be smart and don't do something like this to be funny," he said. "It's a very serious matter and authorities take it as such."

mkuhlman@thisweeknews.com

@ThisWeekMarla