School safety

DAVE LICHTENBERG, school resource officer at the Norfolk High School, talks with students as school dismisses for the day recently. Lichtenberg said one of the keys to his position, and to school safety, is building relationships with students and their parents. 

Student safety is Norfolk Public Schools' top priority.

That's why, especially with school shootings becoming more common, the district continually evaluates and updates its safety policies and procedures, said Mike Hart, director of human resources and accreditation. Hart is also the district's safety director.

In fact, before the recent shootings in Florida and Maryland, the district has been working to implement a new reporting tool and to make current safety procedures better known.

"We've been working on a comprehensive safety plan, and we'll continue to work on a comprehensive safety plan for quite a while," Hart said. "So we've been doing the standard responses for over a year. We've had our secure entrances in place. We've had our procedures in place for a long time. We just want to continue to enhance those to continue to meet whatever the evolving threats are or the current condition of society right now."

The implementation of the reporting tool, SafeSchools Alert, will likely happen at the beginning of April, and it’s something that Norfolk High's school resource officer Dave Lichtenberg said he thinks will be beneficial.

SafeSchools Alert allows students, parents or community members who have a concern — ranging from bullying to a suspected threat to students — to report a tip via either text, email, web or phone. The tip can be made anonymously.

Administrators are then able to follow up to determine the facts and take action if necessary.

"I would like to think that if we had something, if we had a student with an issue, that clearly our students are going to see or someone's going to see what they're going through, that he's carrying around that much weight, having that struggle, that they'd come to us and let us know so we can investigate that," Lichtenberg said.

Lichtenberg said he and others in the district have worked hard to foster relationships with students and parents so they feel comfortable reporting concerns. The new app will be another outlet so that the district can take preventive steps if a threat arises.

"We do take every rumor, every concern very seriously," Superintendent Dr. Jami Jo Thompson said. "We investigate them to determine if there is a threat, and we involve law enforcement immediately if we have any reason to suspect that there is a threat to our students or our staff."

The district's relationship with law enforcement is another important piece of the puzzle. Lichtenberg, as a police officer, is a direct link to the police department, and he's the first line of defense at the high school in the case of an active shooter.

But Thompson said Capt. Don Miller also has played a vital role along with Lichtenberg on the district's safety team over the past 10 to 15 years.

The police department also holds training sessions at the school in the summer and brings officers through every building so they can get familiar with the layouts.

"The Norfolk Police Division has been training on active shooter things since ... it was probably after Columbine when everything changed in the way they respond to active shooters and stuff, and it's been an evolution because we learn from incidents across the country," Miller said. "We analyze those. We follow a national standard, and we have regular meetings with the school and we work with the school on their protocols and our protocols to make sure that we can work together and they mesh."

The district uses standard response protocols suggested by the Nebraska Department of Education. Norfolk Public Schools plans to release a video at the beginning of April, too, in regard to its protocols to assure parents about what practices are in place for students.

The parochial schools in Norfolk started using these protocols, too, which Thompson said was a big step. It means that if students are at other schools for activities, they'll all know how to respond if an emergency situation occurs.

The protocols include what to do in a lockout when the threat is outside the building, a lockdown when the threat is inside, an evacuation situation, which would occur with something like a gas leak, and then a shelter situation, which would occur if there was a tornado or other natural disaster.

There's also plans to continue to evaluate safety moving forward.

"I think the anonymous reporting piece is going to be our first step, but when we get that together, we're going to look at everything," Thompson said. "We'll go back through our facilities and look at our entrances, which we feel are safe and secure, but we'll look to see if there are any improvements that can be made. Are we following our practices and procedures the way we should be? Are we practicing enough? That is probably a piece that we'll want to address is practicing our intruder drills more often."

Many times, there are opinions that circulate after a tragedy about what could mitigate further incidents — from arming teachers to installing metal detectors. But the district and the police department don't want to act hastily. Instead they want to evaluate what best practices to use, and Hart, Thompson, Lichtenberg and Miller agree that when you look at all the factors, knee-jerk reactions — like the aforementioned examples — are not the best solutions.

"There's a lot of quick fix ideas, but our job is to analyze what do we think would be effective to actually make somebody safe with our resources?" Miller said.

That's why, in the end, Hart said school safety is built one conversation at a time, and ensuring safety is an evolution.

"We're always evaluating, always looking at what our options are," Lichtenberg said. "We are always looking at what's best for our kids."

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