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Building trust critical to preventing school gun violence

Local educators reflect on grim anniversary of Columbine shooting 

Editor’s note: This is the first in a three-part series on the problem of gun violence in schools, providing an overview of the many measures public school districts in Kent County have taken to protect students, enhance their safety and build their trust. 

By Joanne Bailey-Boorsma

Multiple districts — Byron Center Superintendent Kevin Macina knows firsthand how important relationships with students are. In 2021, a student rushed into the office of the high school’s security resource officer to report that a student had a handgun in his backpack. The quick action of the student who spotted it averted what could have been a tragedy.  

“A student had a relationship with a school resource officer and felt comfortable enough to bring it to their attention and they were able to handle it,” Macina said. While the high school incident did not end in tragedy, in 2023 the former student was found guilty of killing his father — suggesting just how serious the school situation could have been.

School resource officers’ role is largely about making connections with students, helping them work through problems and keeping them in class. Those connections can make all the difference at a critical moment, Macina said.  

“They’re in the building and they’re going to sporting events,” he said. “Kids become comfortable with the SRO, establish a connection with an adult and feel comfortable telling them anything.” 

Byron Center Superintendent Kevin Macina, seen here shortly after being hired in 2020, says students need to feel safe in order to learn

Building those trusting relationships with resource officers and other school staff is a key component of local districts’ multi-front response to the growing problem of gun violence in schools.

Saturday marks the 25th anniversary of the shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School, on April 20, 1999, which killed 12 students and a teacher along with the two student shooters. Since then the list of places remembered for such tragedies has continued to grow: Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn. in 2012; Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla. in 2018; Robb Elementary in Uvalde, Texas in 2022; and, in Michigan, Oxford High School in 2021.

As of April 12, there had been 11 school shootings that killed or injured people, according to Education Week’s school shootings tracker. Firearms are the leading cause of death among children and teens, according to the latest figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

‘None of us went into education to think about this part of it, but we have caring adults who think about these things and buildings are safer and kids feel safer so then they can focus on the learning.’

— Byron Center Superintendent Kevin Macina

Districts Spending Millions on Safety and Security 

While Kent County has not experienced tragedies at the level of Columbine or Oxford, awareness of them and local incidents of guns in schools — as well as close calls involving threats — have led to an increased focus on safety and security in Kent ISD’s 20 local school districts.  

Measures have included:

  • secure entryways and overall building designs; 
  • review of emergency procedures and increased school lockdown drills; 
  • more attention to mental health-focused precautions and student support systems.

Most school districts also have hired school resource officers and/or worked with local law enforcement to provide SROs. The Kent County Sheriff’s Department currently has 21 resource officers serving schools in the municipalities under the department’s jurisdiction. Grand Rapids Public Schools has its own security staff.

“None of us went into education to think about this part of it,” Macina said, “but we have caring adults who think about these things and buildings are safer and kids feel safer so then they can focus on the learning.” 

It’s an issue that all districts have had to think about, prepare for and spend millions on to better protect their students. 

In the 2022-2023 school year, the county’s 20 public school districts spent more than $11 million on security measures, which includes personnel and technology, said Kevin Philipps, Kent ISD assistant superintendent of business.

“School districts are taking school safety more seriously and pushing it to the top of the educational agenda,” said Larry Johnson, chief of staff and executive director of public safety and school security for Grand Rapids Public Schools.

School shooting incidents, which cover the spectrum of  a gun being fired during a dispute on school grounds to an active shooter inside a school, have dramatically risen in the United States over the past 25 years. 

In 1999, the year of the Columbine attack, there were 23 shooting incidents; in 2023, there were 348, with 248 victims killed or wounded not including the shooter, according to the K-12 School Shooting Database, a catalog maintained by independent researcher David Riedman. This is the highest total number of incidents in a year since 1966, which is as far back as the database goes.

The 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, where 20 children and six adults were killed, remains the most deadly; second-deadliest was the 2022 Uvalde massacre, killing 19 students and two teachers. All 50 states have experienced school-related shootings, including Michigan, which, according to the database, saw 32 people wounded or killed in 42 school shootings from 2018-2023.

Designing with Safety in Mind

From landscape design to door locks, building design has been a major focal point for schools when considering security measures.

A locked door, according to most local school security experts, is the best way to keep students safe.

“Lock a door and your chances of surviving a violent incident increases,” said Sean Burns, Kent ISD director of security and safety. An active shooter has never breached a locked door, Burns emphasized. “Locking that door is probably the best security measure you can take outside of everything else we do.”

Byron Center High School recently installed door locks, which security experts say can provide crucial minutes of protection

Simple as they are, door locks can provide crucial minutes of protection while law enforcement is on the way, Burns said. 

“If you just lock your door, figure out a hard corner in your classroom for your kids and yourself because you’re only trying to gain three, four minutes, because by that time, especially in Kent County, somebody’s gonna be on the scene moving toward trying to eliminate that threat,” he added. 

Recognizing that shooters go after unlocked doors, Byron Center’s Macina said his district recently purchased thumb door locks. They work similarly to those found on a bathroom door where a small sign indicates if the door is locked or open. 

The locks were installed on all academic areas and other major areas that are used by students each day, Macina said, adding that the locks are a way for teachers to “know they’ve locked their doors.” 

Building entrances also have changed dramatically over the past decade. Since the 2012 Sandy Hook shooting, local school districts have worked to create single-point secure entry into school buildings requiring visitors to pass through a single entrance, usually the main office, Burns said. Most schools require visitors to check in and out of the office so staff can identify who is in the building in case there is an incident, he said.

District bond issues in recent years have commonly included funds for redesigned entrances along with other security measures. An $11.3 million, 2021 bond issue paid for buzz-in entryway vestibules in Kelloggsville Public Schools. In Grand Rapids Public Schools, a $175 million bond issue in 2015 funded security vestibules at Union and Ottawa Hills high schools.

Also key for schools when it comes to security has been traffic design and landscaping. Most districts have moved away from allowing a person to drive right up to the front entrance of a building, instead designing parking lots for traffic flow so vehicles have to turn before getting to the door. Landscaping, such as traffic barriers or boulders,  also prohibit cars from driving up to the building. 

“Little security stuff like that, that most people just look at and say ‘Oh, that’s pretty landscaping,’ … is there for a reason,” Burns said.

Building design can be a balance between security and aesthetics, he said. For example, many schools have glass walls, which from an architectural standpoint let in lots of natural light, but, from a security standpoint allow someone walking down the hall to look right in.

“What measures do you put in place to still get the benefits that the architects and the educators want, but you’re protecting your folks that are in those types of rooms?” Burns said, adding the state has been moving toward requiring a security expert to review plans for school remodels and new buildings.

‘School districts are taking school safety more seriously and pushing it to the top of the educational agenda.’

— Larry Johnson, executive director of safety and security, Grand Rapids Public Schools

Enhancing Safety With Technology

Technology has been another major shift as more and more options are available all the time. Tech can be a benefit but it has to be the right fit, said Johnson, the GRPS safety and security director, adding  there are “so many technology opportunities available that makes it difficult to select what is best for a district.”

Johnson said districts have to research what is best for them. Grand Rapids has its own safety guidelines that cover everything from the cleanliness of the building to preventing weapons being brought in. In 2018, the Michigan School Safety Task Force, which Johnson was a part of, came out with school safety recommendations that include a best practice guide for school technology. 

In Kenowa Hills, Superintendent Jerry Hopkins said beyond more secure entrances, the district has added security cameras to all buildings. It is also looking to use state-allocated safety funds to explore advancements in new technology and using AI to advance security-camera capabilities. The district also recently purchased a two-way radio system to create a more efficient, district-wide communication system, Hopkins said.

The state has dedicated more than $500 million to school security since 2022, as recently reported by Bridge Michigan, with funding for everything from building safety features to school resource officers to mental-health services. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s proposed 2025 education budget includes $300 million for student mental health and school safety needs. However, Johnson said he is concerned whether districts will be able to sustain the effort if the funding stops.

Personal Relationships: Building Student Trust 

Beyond the protective hardware and software, building trusting student relationships with school staff and resource officers is absolutely key to their safety, experts say.    

“Technology has its place when it comes to safety and security, but I believe that relationship-building provides for an environment of open communication and supports a positive climate and culture for the building,” said Scott Beckman, director of security for Rockford Public Schools.

Having those relationships makes the students feel more comfortable in reporting concerns to a security person or trusted adult, Beckman said, adding students are highly connected, especially through social media, and are aware when someone is saying or acting differently.

While security initiatives such as vestibules, window film, increased camera usage and state-mandated active-shooter drills have been the major focus, in the past nine years at Rockford there has been a shift in focusing more on behavioral assessments, mental health supports, anti-bullying programs and early interventions with students, Beckman said.

At Wyoming Public Schools, the safety and security presence in schools is largely focused on relationships. The district added Joe Steffes in September as its first-ever safety and security coordinator, along with four security team members at Wyoming High School, Junior High and Intermediate School. They join two SROs and several student advocates district-wide. Steffes and Mike Moore, a student advocate at Wyoming Intermediate School, and the new security team members are all retired Wyoming Police Department officers. 

Wyoming Intermediate School student advocate Mike Moore spends part of each day in the school cafeteria, as he is here with sixth-graders Naomi Cubias, left, and Yulissa Caleron

After 27 years with Wyoming Police, Moore now spends his days with fifth- and sixth-graders in his office, the hallways, cafeteria and playground. He’s a “jack-of-all-trades,” he said, while maneuvering a trash can between tables during lunchtime for students to discard their plates. He’s there as an authority figure focused on building connections with students. 

The tie between relationships and school safety and security is huge, he explained.

“(In law enforcement), you build a relationship with the community,” Moore said. “Here, I build a relationship with the students, which is our community. They get to know you; they get to trust you; they come to you with things that are happening in the building that we don’t know about. A lot of times it could be things that are started outside of the building and they are being brought in.”

It’s about prevention, but also about responsiveness. If students are comfortable, they are much more likely to provide information about what led to a problem, he said.

“They know your face and who you are. They are not afraid to come to you if there is an issue.”

‘They get to know you; they get to trust you; they come to you with things that are happening in the building that we don’t know about.’  

— Mike Moore, student advocate at Wyoming Intermediate School

Protection Plus Prevention Needed

Technology such as video is good for collaboration, but the chances of actually seeing something about to happen is slim, pointed out Burns, the Kent ISD security director. He agrees that the best proactive measure is those caring adults who have established relationships with students.

While mass school shootings generate headlines and renewed attention on school security, they are relatively rare, Burns said, adding a person is more likely to be hit by lightning than face an active shooter in school.  

Riedman, who compiles the K-12 Shooting Database, stated in an interview with The Economist that the most common circumstance for a gun to be fired is a dispute between students, usually taking place in a hallway or parking lot during dismissal. 

In any event, it’s vital that schools be prepared for gun-violence events — and work to prevent them happening in the first place. So says John Wittkowski, who was hired last fall by Kent ISD as the Region 1 emergency response and coordinator for the Cedar Springs, Sparta, Kent City, Comstock Park, Kenowa Hills, Northview and Rockford school districts.

“I think it’s important that we create a team that’s … prepared in the event of an emergency or violent episode, but it’s more than that,” said Wittkowski, a former Grand Rapids Police Department sergeant. “We want to talk about a level of continuity, and we want to ensure that we not only address the issue of violence, but we look at how to avert violence. 

“Those are the stories you don’t hear about: those instances that were averted.”

Erin Albanese, Alexis Stark and Riley Kelley contributed to this story 

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Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma
Joanne Bailey-Boorsma is a reporter covering Kent ISD, Godwin Heights, Kelloggsville, Forest Hills and Comstock Park. The salutatorian for the Hartland Public Schools class of 1985, she changed her colors from blue and maize to green and white by attending Michigan State University, where she majored in journalism. Joanne moved to the Grand Rapids area in 1989, where she started her journalism career at the Advance Newspapers. She later became the editor for On-the-Town magazine, a local arts and entertainment publication. Her eldest daughter is a nurse, working in Holland, and her youngest attends Oakland University. Both are graduates from Byron Center High School. She is a volunteer for the Van Singel Fine Arts Advisory Board and the Kent District Library. In her free time, Joanne enjoys spending time with her family, checking out local theater and keeping up with all the exchange students they have hosted through the years. Read Joanne's full bio


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