A national school safety expert with Marshall County ties, on Monday discussed issues the high school has faced since a shooting Jan. 23 that left Bailey Holt and Preston Cope dead. Both were 15. Another 18 students were injured, 14 from gunfire. Gabe Parker, a 16-year-old student is charged in the shootings.
Ron Stephens, PhD., whose father, Jesse William Stephens, was born in Benton in 1913 and attended a nearby one-room school, discussed school safety issues with county and regional school administrators and board members. Stephens is executive director of the National School Safety Center in Westlake Village, California. Earlier in the day, a student told him, “We are just taking it one day at a time.” Stephens — who also advised Heath High Principal Bill Bonds and staff after the shooting there that killed three and injured five others in December 1997 — indicated one-day-at-a-time is essentially all anyone can do in coping with the aftermath.
The discussion followed a demonstration of an Intelligent Threat Detection Solution device presented by Mike Smith and Benjamin Wells from Smith & Sons of Washington D.C. The $25,000 device known as RONIN, is a high-tech detector that may be used overtly or covertly at designated entrances.
Now as MCHS students enter each day, a wand is used to ensure they have no weapons on their person and their bags are also searched. Superintendent Trent Lovett said that procedure will continue the remainder of this year, but a better system will be required in the future. The school has a donation offer of a metal detector and X-Ray machine, however Lovett hasn’t seen it and has no details regarding whether the technology is new or outdated. “We are considering all options,” he said, in a brief interview before the RONIN demonstration.
The demonstration and discussion were conducted at the Kenneth Shadowen Performing Arts Center at Marshall County High School. Stephens also was scheduled to conduct a public forum after press time Monday evening.
Nationwide reports indicate more than 75 percent of today’s students feel unsafe in their classrooms. And many MCHS and regional students have expressed similar feelings. At the local March for Our Lives six weeks ago, a 14-year-old MCHS student said upon arriving at school each morning before the shooting, his thoughts were about the classes for the day ahead. “Nowadays, I’m thinking about where to run — where to take cover. So, I may never feel safe again.”
“The real key to (providing a safe school) is how you create a welcoming climate,” as the students enter each day, Stephens told the school authorities, regarding safety measures. “If I were a student, how I would want to be treated?” he queried. “I think it’s really good to be responsive to the students. … That’s the best thing you can do. … It is sort of a sad commentary that we are having to check so much. … The thing I would suggest when you look at something like that (device) is count the cost of what long-term operations requirements will be. Then go back and ask the question, ‘Is this the kind of climate that we want to create?’ First demonstrate that you have compelling cause; you have a serious background of these incidents happening on an ongoing basis. You’ve got one, for which we are all very sad about, but then it’s not like it’s not … a gang threat like we have in Los Angeles — street gangs.”
Stephens indicated he would be inclined to use more subtle safety measures. “Your students just seem so nice; they are just gracious,” he said in response to a question. “I’d like to transplant them to California. … There is no guarantee that any crime can ever be fully prevented. If kids want to get guns onto the school (campus) in the community I come from, they shove them in bushes, they throw over the fence; they’ll figure out a way to do it after you go through all the process. You can’t be perfect, so I say don’t even have it in your mind. … All you are required to do is to take reasonable steps to provide a safe and welcoming environment.
“There’s not a school district in America that can insure a safe school,” he said. “Only an insurance company can do that. Lloyds of London is now offering the first insurance policy that I know of in regard to school shootings. When they were considering bringing this policy to America, they ask me whether or not I thought they could make any money? I said, ‘I think you can make a lot of money because the incidents are so rare, and yet the hype and concern for school safety is so high right now.’ He cited the 24/7 news coverage. “It has just been relentless — even when you look at what happened in McCracken County … at Heath High School. Then some of the other school shootings, you have the media coming in using high-tech strategies to eavesdrop on the chief of police and the school superintendent so they can pick up what they are doing. They had to eventually move their media update to a different location just to protect privacy and tactical strategies and other things that were going on.”
Stephens has led the school safety center since 1985. Through the years, he has consulted with literally thousands of school districts, law enforcement agencies, and professional organizations worldwide and he edits School Safety News Service, America’s preeminent school crime prevention newsletter. His training and technical assistance activities include lectures before 500 public groups and professional associations, technical assistance to 250 school districts nationwide, 14 international lectures, assisting six Native American organizations, 12 training films, 200 television appearances on all the major shows and networks, testifying before Congress five times, 1,000 newspaper and magazine interviews, and 20 publications. Prominent organizations he has addressed include the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, the American Society of Criminology, more than 25 colleges and universities, and the National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges.
The National School Safety Center is a non-profit advocate for safe, secure and peaceful schools worldwide and a catalyst for the prevention of school crime and violence. It was created by presidential directive in 1984 as a joint program between the U.S Departments of Education and Justice, its website said.