By LAURA HAMMACK, guest columnist
I was a teacher at Nashville Elementary School for three or four years before the building got air conditioning. The first month of school could get pretty warm inside the building; however, we opened the windows, plugged in a few fans, took frequent water breaks (and bathroom breaks), and pretty soon the leaves would start to turn and we didn’t need to worry about the fans again until it was almost time for summer break.
I remember one particularly warm afternoon when I was teaching at the front of the classroom and my sixth-grade students were wilting in their chairs. Whatever we were doing was not very exciting, because I distinctly remember hearing the drone of the fans and seeing my sweet students with their heads held up by their hands, trying to stay awake.
We were jolted out of this warm afternoon slump when two dogs burst through our classroom door engaged in something of a chase. Once they got inside the classroom, the dogs abandoned each other and went directly to the students where they accepted pats and scratches and also sniffed out the desks of the students who were hiding candy. We laughed so hard because as much as we tried, these two dogs could not be caught. And then, as fast as they came in the room, they were gone down the hall, where they ran out the door and back into town before we realized what had actually happened.
I remember that story so well because I thought it was hysterical that the boys and girls all knew who the dogs were and where they lived. I also remember that story so well because it represents a time when we were able to prop the doors of our schoolhouse open so we could catch a slight breeze in the hallways. It was a time when neighborhood dogs could walk into school through an open door and wake the boys and girls up on a warm afternoon. It was a time when the only two emergency drills we practiced were tornado and fire.
We have learned a lot since the time when our doors were propped open. Schools like Columbine High School, Sandy Hook Elementary School, and now Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, were names that used to hold no national notoriety; however, when they became names that would be forever sealed on our psyche, we began the important work to realize that our safety and security efforts in the schoolhouse needed to be improved.
When I was teaching sixth grade and our doors were propped open, safety and security was rarely an agenda item during faculty meetings. We simply didn’t know any better. But now, we know better. And because of that, I can assure our community that safety and security are our highest priority and we work every day to ensure that our boys and girls are safe.
We hosted an onsite safety review from the Indiana Department of Education nearly a week after the events in Parkland unfolded. This review happened because IDOE randomly monitors over 50 schools a year via onsite visits, and Brown County Intermediate School was an identified school in this year’s review.
During the process, a school safety specialist met with Mr. Austin, Mr. Davis and me, and we worked through a set of questions that assessed our levels of preparedness. While we walked away with a wonderful set of additional resources, I am pleased to share with our community that Brown County Intermediate School was formally indicated as compliant with all emergency preparedness and school safety requirements set forth under Indiana Code.
With that being said, we recognize that we have a lot more work to do in order to continually improve safety and security protocols within our schools. We are moving forward with implementing a comprehensive training model for all school employees called “ALICE” (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate). This model will train all of our employees and first responders on how to proactively handle the threat of an intruder or active shooter event.
We are excited to have access to resources that will allow us to be strategic with evaluating our entryways, and will be working to develop new systems for access inside our buildings. From locking systems, to window sheeting that is bullet-resistant, our school district will be deploying preventive, evidence-based methods to ensure that our buildings become even harder targets than what they are now.
We also recognize that all of these strategies, while helpful, don’t target one of the most primary underlying issues related to school safety: mental health and wellness. We are grateful for the award of the Lilly Counseling Grant to advance counseling access for students and we also sincerely appreciate our collaboration with Centerstone to provide school-based therapeutic services for students in need.
Because of other grant funding, our students will be introduced to comprehensive social/emotional learning curriculum across the grade levels next year to target issues like bullying, drug/alcohol/opiate abuse, social media, healthy relationships, and managing stress/anger/other emotions.
It is difficult to communicate in words how deeply we take the responsibility of taking care of your children when we are blessed to have them in our schools every day. I pray every morning for the safety and wellness of our students and our staff and ask that you do the same.
We are blessed to be in an incredible community of people who care deeply about our boys and girls. Please know that we love your children and are committed to advancing every option for ensuring their safety and security at school.
Laura Hammack is superintendent of Brown County schools. She can be reached at 812-988-6601 or firstname.lastname@example.org.