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Are Northeast Ohio school districts prepared for traditional areas of school safety ahead of the upcoming year?

COVID isn't the only thing schools will be keeping an eye on this year. Mental health and violence will also be at the forefront.

CLEVELAND — While Northeast Ohio school districts continue to focus on COVID-19 safety protocol – it got us thinking, are schools still preparing for traditional areas of school safety like handling violence and mental illness among students?

To mask or not to mask? That's the question that most school districts have been grappling with all summer. And while that conversation is extremely important and timely – national school safety expert Ken Trump worries that officials are spending too much time focusing only on the coronavirus.

"The phrase school safety has shifted from violence, crime and school shootings to COVID safety," national school safety expert, Ken Trump said.

Along with that shift, he says most schools have not practiced their emergency plans for violence or shootings in well over a year.

"They haven't practiced these drills and that's gonna be a concern," Trump said.

"How do you know they haven't practiced these drills?" Polansky asked.

"Due to social distancing and other COVID precautions, that prohibited the traditional school lockdowns, drills, and other emergency drills in their normal form," said Trump.

RELATED: "We’re going the wrong way": COVID-19 delta variant cases climbing in Ohio

The Parma City School District superintendent says his district has not forgotten about traditional areas of school safety.

"We are allocating more of our resources toward that need," said Parma City School District Superintendent, Charles Smialek.

In fact, he says Parma is using the money it got from the CARES Act to increase social and emotional support in its schools.

"We'll have more guidance counselors in high schools, more home liaisons in middle schools, and more behavioral analysts in elementary schools ," Smialek said.

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In 2019, Parma also installed night locks on classroom doors throughout the district to add an extra layer of security should an active shooter situation take place. Students and staff participate in Alice training twice per year, as well.

"We want to make sure we're guarding against all kinds of threats, whether those are health threats or active shooters," said Scott DiMauro, of the Ohio Education Association.

DiMauro, who heads the Ohio Education Association, is on the same page, adding that the majority of the 120,000 teachers that he represents are most concerned about students' mental health.

"It's reconnecting with kids who may have been disconnected from school. The mental health challenges that come with isolation," said DiMauro.

He also says it's possible and probable that schools can be prepared for Covid-19 safety and prepared for traditional safety at the same time.

We spoke to several Northeast Ohio school districts about the steps they're taking to ensure more traditional areas of safety this year. Here's what they had to say:

Avon Lake:

  1. How is your district preparing for traditional areas of school safety like violence? Have you reviewed emergency safety plans?

"School safety is an ongoing effort at all schools. As a School District that was able to have 82% of our students go all day, 5 days a week last school year, Avon Lake continued working of safety and mental health issues as it would have during a traditional school year. But, with 18% of our students coming off of a year of remote learning and everyone else have a COVID modified year, we will start the school year recalibrating not only our academic programs, but also our school safety programs and our safety nets for students with social emotional issues."

  1. How is your district preparing for mental health issues among students who have been stuck at home the past year?

"AL has added a HS counselor for the 2021-22 school year and beyond and will maintain our school nurses that we added last year. Our social worker (Kristin Acton), building counselors, LCADA counselor (Lisa Goodwin), building nurses and teaching staff have developed processes over the last year to identify students who are struggling academically and/or emotionally and get them help. In August we have professional development for all staff that will continue this work (Assistant Superintendent Jack Dibee). We are anticipating the need to be very flexible as students return to the classroom. And want staff and students to be able to access the resources they need to transition back to school successfully."

  1. What is your district using CARES Act (ESSER Funds) money to go toward?

"AL ESSER Funds are being used for our Jump Start program this August for students K to 12th grades. During the school year the balance of our funds will be used for personnel to support students who need assistance in catching up or keeping up. Math, ELA Tutors are a good example."

Westlake:

1. How is your district preparing for traditional areas of school safety like violence? Have you reviewed emergency safety plans? 

"Westlake is very fortunate compared to many districts, to have an assigned school resource officer in each school building as a result of a partnership with the City of Westlake. Our SROs are members of the District Safety Committee and our great resources to provide immediate feedback and long term planning. The committee meets quarterly to continuously review our traditional school security, safety plans and needs.One focus was to maintain physical safety while adjusting to COVID protocols. Our intent was to ensure proper protocols are in place for COVID but to not impact the operational safety of our facilities. This included but was not limited to drills. Drills continued through last year. In fact during hybrid schedules (1/2 of the students and alternating days) we would run drills twice to ensure that each group of students were able to participate."


2. How is your district preparing for mental health issues among students who have been stuck at home the past year? 

"The Westlake City Schools implemented a robust summer program with opportunities for all students. By the start of this upcoming school year, nearly 1/3 of our students will participate in some program. Many of these programs do have components that are directed to assist with student wellness and reintegration with the school and classmates. There are also specific sessions scheduled for students who chose to spend the entire year in virtual learning. Every building will host a program. We know that there will be students coming back who may have never been in the school they will be attending. The district has adopted a comprehensive health and wellness program, increased the number of school counselors, and have partnered with outside organizations to serve students and families who would require services outside of the traditional scope of a school counselor."


3. What is your district using CARES Act (ESSER Funds) money to go toward? 

"A balanced approach with the funding being directed towards our students and helping our entire district move forward after such a significant disruption. Much of the programming listed in the previous question is being funded with the ESSERS funds. With so much online learning and student isolation, we entered this summer with the mantra: “Unplugged, Outdoors, and Hands-On.” As we enter this school year, we will also be using the funding to provide additional academic, emotional, and enhancement for our students. Keeping with the “outdoors” theme, we are expanding and enhancing our outdoor learning areas for students. Although we do have a focus on reconnecting, we also know that our staff and students found efficient ways to enhance education through the use of technology. Therefore, we also are utilizing these funds to launch a 1:1 technology initiative. This would range from grades PK-12."

Olmsted Falls:

1. How is your district preparing for traditional areas of school safety like violence? Have you reviewed emergency safety plans?

"The reality is we always need to be prepared for school violence. School district's have an obligation to review plans at all of their school buildings and those plans are on file with the Ohio Department of Education. They are also accessible by first responders as well. We continued to do all of our safety drills last year including ALICE drills. Olmsted Falls returned to school 5-days per week on February 22, 2021, but we ran fire and safety drills all year. Along with being prepared through the creation of plans and drilling on them, prevention is important as well. Our district has a district-wide positive behavior support system in place for students in K-12. Our motto is, Be Safe, Respectful, Responsible and Kind. Violence prevention comes down to building culture and our staff and students have done a great job promoting it and treating people kindly."

2. How is your district preparing for mental health issues among students who have been stuck at home the past year?

"As a former School Psychologist who is now a superintendent, I'm sensitive to the mental health needs of kids. My answer to this question incorporates your last question. Student mental health has always been a priority and a concern and it is now more than ever. When Gov DeWine created his Family Wellness line item in the budget, we used those resources to hire our first social worker and we also hired a Family Engagement Specialist. The funding formula has changed so we're waiting to see how that shakes out, but our district needs another social worker and we plan on making that happen for the 2021-2022 school year. About 2 years ago we increased our in-district mental health supports through school counselors and school psychologists. As it relates to real service delivery, school counselors do not have as much time as they would like to work on mental health with kids. In short, it helped, but adolescent angst was a real problem prior to COVID-19 and it has become an even larger issue moving forward. Due to this fact, our plan is to partner with a local mental health organization in order to provide services to students and families over the course of the next 3 years. We will use some of our ESSER-3 resources to do that. We're still working on the service delivery model, but it would include students who are referred by our staff, by their own family or self referral. Depression and anxiety are very real challenges for our kids and we want to support them."

3. What is your district using CARES Act (ESSER Funds) money to go toward?

  • Preventing the disruption of services to students by keeping staff employed and helping with the cost of day to day operations.
  • Summer intervention and during the year academic intervention
  • Technology for students and staff. We needed to upgrade our tech infrastructure
  • Curriculum and instructional materials
  • Mental health supports

Akron:

1. How is your district preparing for traditional areas of school safety like violence? Have you reviewed emergency safety plans?

"Consistent with the passage of Ohio's SAFE ACT, Akron Public Schools has reinforced its efforts towards student safety through both processes and staff training. These efforts will focus on both student threat assessment and risk mitigation as well as suicide prevention and intervention. Akron Public Schools continues to advance Multi-Tiered Systems of Supports that emphasize Positive Behavior Intervention Supports across the continuum of social emotional and behavioral needs. We have reviewed our emergency safety and crisis plans to ensure efficient processes and adherence to both Ohio SAFE Act requirements and current evidence-based practices. We have many safety training that we do complete including ALICE drills through both active and passive training in our school buildings. We have a robust crisis team that supports the mental health needs of our students who have experienced trauma."

2. How is your district preparing for mental health issues among students who have been stuck at home the past year?

"Throughout the past year and half, APS has embarked on significant personnel training on behavioral health, suicide, threat, and the comprehensive social emotional needs that arose out of the pandemic.
These efforts have ensured our district personnel had both exposure and experience in crisis supports during the virtual learning period and within shared in-person and remote learning from March 2021 onward. Currently, our district's summer programs have been focused on the social emotional well-being of our students, providing interactive and team building activities, and recovery efforts towards academic achievement."

3. What is your district using CARES Act (ESSER Funds) money to go toward?

-Expanded learning opportunities (summer and after school).
-Targeted interventions, tutoring and instructional supports to accelerate learning and catch up from last year.
-Social emotional learning supports for our students. More will be needing these due to COVID
APS Equity strategies (DEI training, equity in higher level courses) to catch up on important work in this area