SCHOOLS FOCUS ON SAFETY
Officials at St. Ignace Area Schools practice proactivity on challenging topic
ST. IGNACE — School districts are taking more safety measures to prevent acts of violence.
Kari Visnaw, the superintendent of St. Ignace Area Schools, said the district has always had safety measures in place, but updates to buildings will help protect students and staff.
“We passed a bond in the community last year that is allowing us to do some significant renovations across our school district,” she said.
The district is making improvements to its 63-year-old high school, such as adding double doors and updating loudspeakers and camera systems.
Visnaw said extra safety wasn’t taken into account when the school was being built, adding, “We’re fortunate that we’re going to be able to access bond revenue funds along with what we put towards school safety and security with our general fund money.”
“We’re pretty active with our OK2SAY campaigns to make sure that awareness is there. We are pretty cognizant of our emergency operations plans,” Visnaw said.
OK2SAY is a program that provides the public with resources to anonymously submit tips about potential threats of violence. Its state government partners include the State Police, Education and Civil Rights departments, Department of Health and Human Services and Attorney General’s office.
From January to September 2023, 256 tips about possible attacks were submitted, according to the program website.
Mary Drew, a department specialist at OK2SAY, said the program is connected to every district across the state.
Most of the tips come in after the school day has ended, she said.
“Once the information comes in, they’re going to be communicating with an OK2SAY technician,” Drew said. “Our technicians are really, really skilled at getting kids to open up. It’s about building a relationship with a student online so they feel safe enough to kind of tell us what’s going on.”
The majority of tips come in as texts. Some reports take hours before the technician receives enough information to take action.
“We collect all the information about the who, what, where, when, why, and pass it to the school the next day. But if it’s something that involves life safety or crime, then if we can’t get a hold of somebody at the school, we’ll contact local law enforcement,” Drew said.
OK2SAY says that schools are unaware of the problem before it was reported 68% of the time. Of 1,895 reported tips, 90% of schools said they received sufficient information from the program.
The Department of Education is taking applications for districts to receive funding for school safety and mental health services.
“Schools across the state are working to improve their physical safety measures and their social, emotional, behavioral, and mental health supports and services,” said Diane Golzynski, the department’s deputy superintendent for finance and operations.
For example, the recently completed Fruitport High School building has curved hallways to reduce the line of sight for shooters, according to Scott Little, the associate executive director of the Michigan School Business Officials.
St. Ignace’s Visnaw said recent tragedies hit close to home, making the district more aware of the need for safety measures.
In a November 2021 shooting at Oxford High School in Oakland County, four students died and seven were injured.
“We’re constantly reviewing our vulnerability and making sure that we are aware of any weak points,” she said.
Visnaw said the St. Ignace district goes beyond lockdown drills and informs students and staff about general security.
“Making sure that a door closes behind you and making sure that if you see something you say something. Maybe you overheard something that you’ve seen, something that doesn’t sit right with you – say something to an adult,” she said.
“Practicing these security measures is common for them. The more it becomes second nature, the more it can be something that we don’t pay enough attention to,” she said.
Drew said OK2SAY is continuing its outreach to schools.
“It’s about empowering kids to be that hero in the hallway and let somebody know what’s going on,” Drew said.
“You don’t have to have all of the information – just pass on what you have. Kids see so much on social media, things that are outside of an adult’s eyes,” she said. “Here’s the way to help make sure our schools are safe so that everyone can thrive and reach their full academic potential.”