In the wake of a gun being confiscated from a student on the first day back from break, junior Oscar Schmidt said they notice themselves more regularly planning escape routes when walking into a room.
Schmidt’s frustrations were echoed by peers during the Student Voices, Student Actions School Safety Forum last month, a community event hosted at Lawrence High. Twenty students, including moderators Trevor Arellano and Sami Turner, discussed 18 separate questions about safety in school, such as “How can we prevent weapons from entering the school while respecting personal privacy?” and “How do we increase transparency regarding safety issues?” These questions were drafted by the moderators and based on student input.
While parents, Superintendent Anthony Lewis and school board members were present, only the pre-selected students were permitted to talk.
“We want to set a precedent for the rest of the district and community that student voices are important,” Turner said.
The one point students seemed to agree most on was that, after four weapon incidents at LHS in the span of a single calendar year, it was easy to become numb.
“I think I speak for everyone here,” senior Amelia Vasquez said, “when I say safety is consistently on our minds.”
In the three incidents where a student brought a firearm to school, all claimed to carry their weapon in self-defense, the most recent occurence relating to a dispute that escalated over winter break. Senior Jon Wertin suggested students be given more flexibility to continue school work from the safety of their home when necessary.
Most students echoed a need for better communication that lets students know information first.
“I didn’t hear about [the gun incident] until I got home and my mom told me,” Schmidt said. “That terrified me more after the fact than if I had learned in the school. That’s more scary to me than knowing in the moment would be.”
According to Lewis, SchoolMessenger is being prepared to be implemented as a mass-text system for safety emergencies. Student phone numbers stored in Powerschool will be used.
As the discussion moved toward Lawrence High’s $46 million remodel, expected to finish in August of 2021, opinions began to differ.
Balancing student privacy, safety and comfort led students to question the need for metal detectors or tinted windows. Several rooms in the new remodel rely more on natural light, with the new glass corridor that connects the main building to the former annex opening to students this week.
Junior Trinity Shorter pointed out that only some doors open to student badges, which can become more than an inconvenience in an emergency.
“In a real emergency, and I’m not at one of those doors but I have my key card, how am I supposed to get in?” Shorter asked.
Schmidt said student involvement in the rest of the remodel is important.
“I don’t think students were very much involved in the planning process…” Schmidt said. “There is still so much we can be doing with the remodel.”
The 18 questions students answered were printed on paper handouts, offering those not a part of the forum to give their input by submitting it in writing after the event.
The forum is one of six planned events as part of Lawrence High’s Listening Learning Lawrence Lions Series that aims to feature student voices in safety conversations.
Prior to the forum, interim principal Cynthia Johnson had already met with student council twice to answer safety questions and brainstorm solutions, as well as accompanied Lewis to talk with a choir class of about 60 students.
Johnson originally developed the plan to put students in charge of the discussion.
“My life’s work is built on relationships, everything I do,” Johnson said. “I know the power of how it can completely transform a school. The students felt safe, had a voice and listened. I think that is the most powerful piece.”
In those meetings, students were given the opportunity to offer ideas on how to make students feel safer at Lawrence High. One suggestion is already becoming a reality.
District mental health facilitator Jose Cornejo believes fear has been at the root of students bringing weapons to school, making mental health an important focus for safety.
“We are here to support and assist students,” Cornejo said. “The mental health time tries to reach out to students and… let students know there are resources in your building.”
Since the community event, several students have formed a student-led mental health team in coordination with Cornejo. Vasquez, who had a leading part in organizing the team, said their goals include hosting forums by professionals that allow parents and students to better understand mental health.
Cornejo also stressed the importance of relationships when talking to The Budget. Safety incidents compelled the district to better incorporate relationship-building among students and faculty into the strategic plan, something Lewis said has been working.
“I’ve seen evidence and I’ve seen it in action,” Lewis said. “Teachers really engaging students in activities to build relationships.”
Another example of the district’s response to safety incidents came after a parent broke the window of a Liberty Memorial Central Middle School classroom over a false alarm. Since that incident, all substitutes are required to have more direct ALICE program training so they are prepared for such emergencies and additional signs directing staff on what to do during emergencies has been placed in classrooms.
The very same day students led the community forum on safety, Lawrence High and Free State students were asked to take a survey on Student Resource Officers. At the same time Lawrence High students were taking that survey, a student was arrested by an SRO for suspicion of battery on a police officer, according to a news release from the district.
When results of this survey were discussed during the Jan. 27 school board meeting, board member G.R. Gordon-Ross argued the importance of student-SRO relationship building.
“Most of the students could name the security guards and they couldn’t name the SROs because they didn’t have the relationships with them,” Gordon-Ross said.
Board members discussed what role the SROs should have going forward, especially as the city last year asked USD 497 to take on a larger role in funding the program.
Independent of USD 497 discussions, police in Lawrence began wearing body cameras this month — a move that included SROs.
Assistant principal and director of facilities, Quentin Rials, said school shootings like Columbine have completely changed the way weapons on school campuses are treated.
“When I went to school here, it was a little bit different,” said Rials, a 25-year LHS alumni. “There were kids that had rifles in the window in the back of their trucks. Things have just changed.”
Sami Turner is the Editor-in-Chief of The Budget newspaper.
Video by Room 125 Productions.