INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — John Akers has spent 26 years protecting and serving the community in law enforcement and working as a school resource officer.
But over the years, he says his conversations have changed with the students he works to keep safe. He often is asked one question over and over again: “Will you protect me?”
Asked if that’s devastating to him, Akers said, “Yes. It takes some time to where you may have to go into your office and kind of take a breath and gather yourself.”
School districts across Indiana have increased their levels of security since the 1999 Columbine High School mass shooting. Yet, Akers feels, the desperate need from his community and others around the country to find the ultimate answer to end all school mass shootings.
“The answer to the question of ‘Why can’t you fix it?’ is because it’s always changing. That is why we as law enforcement are always training, always preparing for what’s next.”
In Wayne Township Schools, that preparation is both heightened technology and mental health counseling for students. Superintendent Jeff Butts showed the I-Team the upgraded sensors to go from door to door. “A person doesn’t need a key anymore, they’ll be able to just click on the sensor and unlock the door. One of the things people often talk about is having to fumble a key to unlock the door if there’s a situation.”
Butts says his district was awarded a $100,000 grant from the state for school safety resources. But while he says he believes in cameras, sensors, school resource officers and similar security measures, Butts says “hardening” schools isn’t the real answer.
“Hardening of schools is not the best-spent expenditure of the resources that we have, and does not provide the greatest safety increase,” the superintendent said. “The greatest increase in safety is improving things like mental health awareness, school climate, making sure you have anti-bullying resources, making sure that students know how to report that and that they have an adult that they feel comfortable reporting to.”
He says it’s the reason why Ben Davis University High School and places similar to it have what is called the impact period of the school day. The period involves students participating in club-type activities with a teacher. The clubs include a wide variety of activities including crocheting, Fellowship of Christian Athletes, an LGBTQ group, a jazz and soul music group, and a photography group. He says students stay with the same teacher throughout their entire high school career and the period is used to have these types of conversations, where students can seek support or even counselling.
Butts said that “it’s a great opportunity to develop that relationship and to be able to have those conversations.” And to get into some of the social emotional discussions that we need to have to make sure students are OK, that they know that they have that person if nobody else that they can go to, and have those conversations, when we do have incidents happen , whether it be student deaths due to a car accident or another situation, we do have teams and unfortunately, we’ve gotten very good at mobilizing our teams to make sure we can provide those supports in the buildings.”
However, with the extra grant money, Butts says, there’s always room for more resources.
“The human factor is the critical piece in and probably one of the greatest challenges,” he said. “We’ve had to be very systematic and really have a long term approach on how we want to address school security. … There were things you did not see (when walking into the building) and would not know to see.”
In downtown Indianapolis, the George and Veronica Phalen Leadership Academy, too, finds itself in a similar situation. Principal Javaris Carrion said that people come to the academy and see “this is colorful, and it’s like, ‘This is great.'”
From the hallways to the classrooms, the academy is a burst of colorful sensation filled with artwork from the students and teachers. Carrion says teachers are often encouraged to decorate their classrooms to inspire joy so their kids remember the fun over the fear.
The academy reevaluates its security once a quarter, and the principal said that “we’re just always looking. It may not be many changes every quarter, but there is just a process of looking to ensure that our buildings are safe.
Parents can come for a tour and are “able to look around and see there’s visibility into every classroom and every hallway,” Carrion said.
Still, no matter the district or position, all three men say they are burdened with the same concerns for their students.
“It pulls on your heartstrings,” Carrion said. “It’s a daily reminder to just continue to push for the right thing.”
The three men have even asked themselves how they would have to respond if it came to their lives or their students.
The Wayne Township Schools superintendent said, “I have thought as even as a building principal, and as a superintendent, that if I were in that situation (of a mass shooting), of course, incident command would dictate that whoever’s in charge, but it is my responsibility to keep children safe, and if that means that I have to put myself in harm’s way, then I’m prepared to do that.”
Asked how do people overcome the fear of what could happen, Akers said, “I don’t know. I don’t have a solid answer. for that. What I can say is that police officers are passionate about the job and choose this profession,” said Akers. “We run to the fear, we run into the fire, we run into the chaos. If that’s not what you’re ready to do, it’s going to be difficult.”