Schools no longer safe havens for students

It was rather interesting sitting through the Shawano School Board meeting on Monday and listening to officials talk about door sensors and emergency radios in an effort to keep schools safe and secure.

After the meeting, I got to thinking about how far we’ve come in terms of the way schools are designed. When I went to high school 25 years ago, there were no school resource officers, no technological system saying that an exterior door was ajar, not even any cellphones or radios to spread the word that there was danger in the school. The only drills we had were monthly fire drills, and there was no need for active shooter drills, because there were no active shooters in the early 1990s.

Back then, schools were for learning.

My high school in Chino Valley, Arizona, was built two years before I became a freshman. It wasn’t a single building like many of the schools here in Wisconsin. It was a cluster of smaller buildings, except for the gymnasiums and agriculture building, and students passed each period outside, getting their items for their next class from exterior lockers. The school was fenced, but gates were open. While visitors were encouraged to check in at the front office — and most did — there were dozens of access points where the front office could be circumvented on route to any of the classrooms.

Yet nobody came and turned Chino Valley High School into a battleground or a smoking crater.

Then a pair of high school students in Littleton, Colorado, turned their school into just that in 1999, firing guns and setting off bombs. Thirteen people were killed, and another two dozen injured. Since then, the great education debate went from what is the best method to education young and growing minds to how school employees can keep them alive long enough to walk across the stage and get their diplomas.

Of course, like potato chips, no one can have just one school shooting. One month after the Columbine High School shooting, another high school student in Georgia opened fire on his school. The mass shooting at Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February was the 208th school shooting in the United States since Columbine, according to Westword, a newspaper in Denver, Colorado.

With that many shootings in almost 20 years, is it any wonder school boards like Shawano’s have to squeeze in time between curriculum debates and budget juggling to keep the disturbing trend of terrorizing schools from hitting their home soil?

If my high school had sensors on the doors in 1995, my senior class would have never been able to fit a classmate’s Volkswagen Bug in the front lobby for our senior prank. The moment someone fiddled with one of the doors, the monitoring company would have been alerted, the police would have been called, and the motley crew carrying out the prank would have been arrested for trespassing.

The move toward more secure schools has certainly influenced how easily I can meet with students, teachers and other interested parties as a journalist. When I started my career, I could walk directly onto a school campus and head directly to a classroom, gym or wherever else I needed to go to do my interviews, snap my photos and accomplish my assignments. I could pop in a school at random and easily inquire if there was anything newsworthy taking place on campus that day.

That method shifted in the mid-2000s, when schools required all visitors to check in at the front office during school hours. Suddenly, I had to fill out forms and put on an ID badge for something as simple as a feature on a kindergarten class.

Fast forward to today, and you can’t even open a door at the school without pushing a button so the front office can see if you’re friend or foe before letting you in. Many times, I have to wait for the person wanting to talk with me to come forth and escort me around the building. No more random visits to snoop for news.

On a visit back to Arizona, I passed by my old alma mater. It doesn’t look like it used to. There’s still chain-link fencing on the exterior, but there are even thicker metal gates limiting access to the buildings. It’s all very nice and secure.

Still, I feel sad that the students that go to school there now don’t have the innocence that my friends and I had, where we could sign each other’s yearbooks in an open, outdoor environment without worrying that a student with mental or emotional issues might spray bullets the way a groundskeeper would spray weed killer. Those days are gone, though, and they’re not coming back. Instead of textbooks and computers, schools have to spend their money on door sensors and armed guards.

Schools used to have time to prepare students for the cold, cruel world. Now they have to figure out how to keep the cold, cruel world from busting through the front door.

Lee Pulaski is the city editor for The Shawano Leader. Readers can contact him at lpulaski@wolfrivermedia.com.