John Elcesser was a school superintendent in West Virginia on the day that changed everything.
He doesn’t recall locked doors in his school facilities prior to April 20, 1999, and he certainly never dreamed of the need for active shooter drills. But the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, altered the trajectory of life as everyone knew it. As the nation nears the 20th anniversary of that grim day, which has been followed by even deadlier mass shootings, lawmakers around the country continue their quest to make schools safer.
In Indiana, these issues hit close to home last year with school shootings in Noblesville and Richmond. Now, three bills making their way through the General Assembly aim to heighten school security and offer critical mental health services for students to prevent future tragedies.
“Columbine made us look at things that we typically took for granted and forced us to rethink them,” said Elcesser, who now serves as executive director of the Indiana Non-Public Education Association. “Today we have a whole new vocabulary. Sheltering in place, lockdown — these were not part of our vernacular or our practices back then. Now it is critical that schools have plans in place to keep people safe. This is one of the major areas of focus at the Statehouse this year.”
The legislative session began in January with 16 bills related to school safety — an unprecedented number for one issue, according to Elcesser, whose organization, along with the Indiana Catholic Conference, has successfully advocated for private schools to be included in the enhanced safety proposals.
“We are pleased that our state recognizes that all students need to be protected, whether they attend public, charter or private schools,” said Glenn Tebbe, executive director of the ICC, the public policy voice of the Catholic Church in Indiana.
Many of the school safety bills introduced this session were in response to a report issued in August by Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb in the wake of the May 2018 shooting at Noblesville West Middle School that injured a student and a teacher. Just three months earlier, school safety had once again dominated the national spotlight when a gunman opened fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 students and staff members and injuring another 17 people.
The 2018 Indiana School Safety Recommendations report was the result of a task force led by the Indiana Department of Homeland Security, the Indiana Department of Education and other state agencies. The 18 proposals in the report include requiring active shooter drills in every school, adding security equipment and technology in and around school buildings, increasing local law enforcement presence inside schools, and expanding mental health services for students.
House Bill 1004, one of the school safety bills moving forward in the legislature, encompasses these and other plans, but it’s the last piece — mental health — that is the top priority of the bill’s author, Rep. Wendy McNamara (R-Evansville). As a teacher and now school principal in the state’s third-largest school district — Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation — she says she knows first-hand the importance of addressing students’ mental and emotional well-being.
“There is nothing more important in a school’s life than relationships,” said McNamara in presenting her bill before the Senate Education Committee earlier this month. “We can put in all the bulletproof doors and windows, we can buy all the latest gadgets, and we can have a law enforcement officer walking down the hallway. But it all starts with relationships, and having a social worker or mental health professional available to our kids is, in my opinion, our No. 1 critical need.”
Tebbe and Elcesser point out that one of the strengths of private schools, especially Catholic and other religious schools, is that they tend to be smaller and more attuned to individual students’ lives and personal issues.
“I would contend that one of the strong suits of nonpublic schools — faith-based ones in particular — is that students don’t get lost in the numbers, and we can better identify and address problems from the very start,” Elcesser said. “In addition, the foundation of our faith-based schools is the values we teach, which guide our actions.”
Elcesser added, however, that “no school is immune” to safety breaches and issues and that everything must be done to protect students and staff from harm.
In her Senate committee testimony, McNamara described the regular drills that are now routine in her school district — exercises that involve identifying an active threat, locking down the school, barricading students inside classrooms, and, if necessary, fighting back. Every school statewide would be required to conduct one active-shooter drill within the first 90 days of the school year if her bill, which passed the House 96-2, is approved by the Senate.
“We need to do all that we can to secure our schools and help our kids feel safe when they come in through those doors every day,” she said.
House Bill 1004 also would expand and adjust safety funding for schools, including Catholic and other nonpublic schools. The bill identifies two separate funds for school safety measures: The safe schools fund is for public schools only, while nonpublic schools are eligible for grants from the secured schools fund. In addition to funding safety equipment and personnel, the state-managed and taxpayer-funded monies also may be used to provide for mental health services as preventive measures.
The ICC and INPEA support the bill, which was scheduled for a vote by the Senate Education Committee at press time. Another mental health-related bill, Senate Bill 266, authored by Sen. Michael Crider (R-Greenfield), passed the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously and continues to advance in the Senate.
A third piece of school safety legislation, House Bill 1225, passed unanimously in the Indiana House of Representatives and now is under consideration by the Senate. Authored by Rep. Gregory Steuerwald (R-Danville), the bill establishes an active warning system that would automatically notify all law enforcement and other emergency personnel within a county to respond immediately in a crisis, even when they are off-duty. All schools, including Catholic and other nonpublic schools, would be included within the system.
In testimony before the Senate Homeland Security and Transportation Committee earlier this month, Porter County Sheriff David Reynolds described the benefits of the system, which has been in operation in the northwest Indiana county for four years. All 75 schools in Porter County are equipped with the alert system, including private schools.
“One of the problems in all school shootings is the lack of response time,” Reynolds said. “This system does not circumvent 911 but notifies all on-duty and off-duty local, state and federal officers in the event of an emergency.”
The ICC and the INPEA support the bill, which passed the committee by a 7-0 vote and was scheduled for a full Senate vote at press time.
To follow priority legislation of the ICC, visit www.indianacc.org. This website includes access to I-CAN, the Indiana Catholic Action Network, which offers the Church’s position on key issues. Those who sign up for I-CAN receive alerts on legislation moving forward and ways to contact their elected representatives.
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