Putting the Safety of Our Children First
Writer // Janelle Morrison
For Sheriff Michael Nielsen, Chief Robert Knox and Dr. Scott Robison, it was not a question of “if” but “when” a situation like the Noblesville West Middle School shooting incident would occur so close to, if not in, our own schools. Immediately following the incident on May 25, 2018, these three gentlemen, along with local officials throughout Boone County, knew that the swift actions of all essential community leaders and public safety agencies were necessary to ensure that our schools would be as safe as humanly possible when school resumes this month.
On June 18, the Zionsville Town Council passed an additional appropriation resolution to provide the necessary funding for additional police officers to serve as school resource officers (SROs) in all Zionsville Community schools, effective at the start of the 2018-19 school year.
The funding allowed Zionsville Police Department (ZPD) to hire three new officers who would report specifically to the duty of being the line of defense or engagement, should the safety of the student body or an individual student be threatened in any way. ZPD’s Chief Knox told us that an average school shooting is over in five to seven minutes, so having an officer in the school cuts down the ZPD’s response time to any situation.
The overall cost for the additional school safety measures is $277,000. The Town of Whitestown has agreed to contribute $75,000 which will provide Boone County Sheriff deputies to three schools in rural districts: Zionsville West Middle School, Boone Meadow Elementary School and Stonegate Elementary School. The cost-sharing between agencies allowed the funding to pass. Zionsville Community Schools has agreed to pay half of the cost. The cost to put a police officer on the street (fully equipped) is approximately just over $100,000 for ZPD and $104,000 for Boone County Sheriff’s Dept., respectively.
“We’ve had two SROs rotating throughout the Zionsville School campuses since 2013,” Knox said. “But did the Noblesville School shooting bring this [school safety] discussion to the forefront? Absolutely. It came home to roost. Everybody can agree that it is unfortunate that we have to do this [take these measures], but these are our children, and it’s just the right thing to do and the right time to do it.”
Knox commended the Zionsville and Whitestown governing bodies, the ZCS Superintendent and his staff and the ZCS board for all being on the same page and for providing the resources to offset expenses incurred by ZPD and Boone County Sheriff’s Dept. by placing police officers and deputies in each of ZCS’ eight campuses.
“We are certainly appreciative of the partnership that we have with the schools, the county, town council and the mayor’s office,” Knox said. “The Whitestown Town Council and Whitestown Police Department are good safety partners, and I am very happy that they’ve stepped up to assist the sheriff’s department and for what they’re doing out in the rural schools.”
School and workplace safety has been a priority for Sheriff Nielsen since he took office four-and-a-half years ago.
“One of my goals in my five-year strategic plan was to phase in SROs in our county’s schools,” Nielsen shared. “Of course, the Noblesville School shooting, where my granddaughters were present during that shooting, brought everything to the forefront and sped things up. Did we react to that? We did. Everybody reacted to that event. But it’s not something that was new for us in Boone County. We’ve been planning it for a long time. We just sped up that particular process.”
Nielsen explained that the topic of school and workplace safety has been on his radar for a number of years due to the increasing number of mental illness incidents and opioid-related crimes throughout Boone County over the last five years.
“I looked into these [statistics] when I became sheriff and said that we’ve got to get SROs into our schools,” Nielsen said. “As a collaborative effort, the chiefs of police and the sheriff meet once a month to discuss our issues. We realized years ago that we need to have our kids, teachers and anyone who is in the building prepared for a violent intruder and not necessarily for an active shooter. Somebody can come in and do just as much damage with a knife, club or even a baseball bat. The issue is preparedness for any violent attack on kids and staff that are very vulnerable.”
Nielsen cited the Noblesville School shooting as an example of how the training and preparedness worked to save lives and limit the number of casualties.
“Noblesville had an SRO that was in the building. Even though he was part-time, he was there almost immediately, and you had a teacher and kids, including my two granddaughters, that were taught what to do through ALICE training. And you had this teacher who had the wherewithal to distract and counter,” Nielsen explained. “The teacher was able to distract by throwing a basketball at the intruder and counter. That whole process mitigated the casualties that happened in that school. We’ve been doing this for five years. We’re not going to stop bad things from happening, but we can mitigate the amount of casualties that happen within that school or workplace or wherever a violent attack takes place.”
Nielsen, Knox and ZCS Superintendent Dr. Scott Robison all agreed that the most important role that the SROs will have in each of the schools is to build trusting relationships with the students.
“The SROs are the first line of defense, but the key is to get them to create trusting relationships with the kids,” Nielsen emphasized. “If you build up that trust, the kids are going to come up to you and say, ‘Johnny over here has a problem, and he’s talking about some really crazy things. Maybe you should talk to him,’ or ‘He’s talking about committing suicide.’ Over the last six months, we’ve had a handful of teenage suicides in Boone County. As a result of these tragedies, we know that we also need to have the wrap-around services that deal with mental health issues. Those services are key to making this initiative a success. We can’t do this alone.”
Nielsen continued, “Zionsville is really good at providing wrap-around services, and the school’s ‘Strong in Every Way’ program is incredible. Everybody has to work together, or this isn’t going to work. It doesn’t make any difference what side of the aisle you’re on politically. It doesn’t make any difference if you believe or don’t believe in the Second Amendment. This is about protecting our kids and connecting with them.”
When asked what the members of the community can do to assist the public safety agencies with their daunting task of protecting our citizens throughout the Boone County community, Knox and Nielsen responded with firm but genuine heartfelt advice.
“We need to get our noses out of these things [smartphones],” Knox said as he gestured to his smartphone. “We [as a community] need to go back to ‘it takes a village to raise a child.’ We need to get to where your child is everyone’s child in the sense that we are looking out for one another. We’ve all got to participate, slow down and take ownership of this community. We need to hold the children accountable when they make a lapse in good judgment, but just as importantly, we need for the community to keep your eyes and ears open. If you see something, say something.”
Nielsen added, “The first thing that parents have to do is be a parent. They have to pay attention to their kids and make sure that they help their kids or seek additional help if there are things that are stressing their kids out.”
As the new school year is about to commence, Robison shared more on the Dynamic Student Support Team (DSST) that has been mobilized as an additional layer of support to the overall school safety initiative as well as the Strong in Every Way initiative (SIEW).
“We are ramping up our human development interventions as quickly as we can,” Robison said. “SIEW is an umbrella that has a lot of things going on. But a particular subset of that activity called the Dynamic Student Support Team, led by Maggie Ionnacci, director of student services, and Dabney Frothingham, a behavioral intervention practitioner, will have a more intimate knowledge of the students who are receiving services or are the ones being bullied or ostracized. The DSST team at present is looking to hire several social workers that we will have on our school ‘beat’ as it were.”
Robison spoke about how the school administration, staff and board are looking at the whole picture, the entire spectrum of school safety and planning and executing school safety measures.
“We want to have a real individualized perception about how students are coming of age in our schools with a real deep attention to that. It is not a perfect antidote because things can slip through the cracks, and young people can choose not to tell you who they really are and become harmful to themselves or others. This isn’t a cost matter, and we are making this happen, so that we can really create a systemic approach to this issue that has plagued other places. There is an old saw about ‘predict and prevent instead of react and repair.’ If we can predict and prevent these events from happening, that’s great. That’s where we get into the spectrum where we have deterrents – the presence of a police car, the presence of an armed police officer – and that will deter some folks who are contemplating doing something awful. Then we have the law enforcement folks helping us with our in-house school safety training, bringing us to the other side of the spectrum, which is about reaction and quick mitigation to keep people safe, should an awful event occur. It’s the whole spectrum of this that we are looking at.”
Robison concluded, “The advent of police officers in all of our schools is a great thing for that readiness and preparation that Noblesville did benefit from because they had police partners – fully-trained, professional police officers – who happen to serve on a beat that involves places where hundreds of citizens go every day and interact every day. These police partners are there as deterrents. They are there to be seen, and they are there to interact with and create relationships with the students and staff. Our police partners from ZPD and Boone County Sheriff’s Dept. will meet with us weekly along with trained school safety specialists, and as a group, we will talk about the collaboration of our interactions. We’re not creating a police state here. We are creating an opportunity to have appropriate deterrents and appropriate immediate reactions if there are bad actors that enter our space.”