Saturday, April 13th, 2024 Church Directory
Mental Health Co-Responder, Roy Neumann of Sherburne County. (Submitted Photo.)

Local police & schools talk school safety

In light of recent school shootings around the nation, and in honor of Police Appreciation Week, the Patriot reached out to local law enforcement agencies and schools to ask how local officials are working to keep students safe and support students’ mental health, and how they would respond in an emergency.

Step One: Prevention

The best way of keeping students safe from an active shooter or other violent situation is to make sure the situation doesn’t present itself. 

Both Becker and Big Lake School Districts have been working on precautions to keep out malicious visitors. Big Lake has secured vestibules at office entrances where visitors can wait without entering the school proper. They also have card access systems to keep students and unauthorized staff members out of certain areas, and there are security cameras all around the school campus. 

Becker similarly has safe and secure entrances, and is currently undergoing a process to make them more so, creating similar isolation areas for adults who have business at the school, such as parents dropping off items for their students. 

In addition, both schools are committed to taking students’ mental health seriously. 

Big Lake is attempting to focus on students’ mental health by creating a positive school culture (the “Hornet Way”) which encourages positive behaviors, as does Social-Emotional Learning programs. Grounds manager TJ Zerwas with Big Lake Schools notes that in cases of student violence, the students involved were all calling out for help before turning to violence, but they were not heard. The school is committed to preventing that from happening. 

Becker’s superintendent notes the importance of school resource officers, who can help students who may be struggling to connect with a counselor or other trustworthy adults. 

In addition, there are ways for students to report changes in their friends’ behavior. Chief Brent Baloun of the Becker Police Department notes that both the schools and the police department can review anonymous tips regarding abnormal student behavior and make sure that an adult connects with that student to see what’s going on.

If a student or parents hears of a threat, Chief John Kaczmarek of the Big Lake Police Department suggests the following, “If a “threat” is portrayed on social media or if a child learns through word of mouth that there is a potential for one, ensure this information including identifying information of the person of interest is translated to School staff and the police department/School Resource Officer. This can be done anonymously also if you don’t feel comfortable providing your identification.”

The number one way to prevent students from turning to violence or despair is to make sure they regularly speak with an adult they trust. Parents, teachers, and even peers should check in and make sure they’re doing well, especially if a student is going through difficult changes in their life. Staff and resource officers are encouraged to form close relationships with students, so students have an adult they can trust in times of darkness. 

Mental Health Co-Responder, Roy Neumann, noted that there are resources for students, families, and, for that matter, adults struggling with mental health. A confidential phone line is available at 320-202-2077, which will connect the caller to people who can connect them to local mental health services. The call is manned Monday through Friday from 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Neumann also notes to watch for warning signs, such as students talking about death, making threats against another person, or talking in terms of feeling hopeless, or like they cannot ever succeed in life, like they are trapped with no way out, or if they are a burden to others. These indicate a time to talk to a trusted adult. 

Step Two: Reaction

If a violent incident were to occur, there are plans in place both from the schools and local law enforcement to deescalate the situation quickly and get people to safety. These various agencies were not willing to share every detail of their plan in case of a violent incident, for fear of compromising those plans, but were willing to share some of the high-level details with the Patriot. 

Both Becker and Big Lake Schools practice lockdown drills twice per year to ensure that students are familiar with how to react in case of an emergency. 

“We don’t want to scare [the students],” says Supt. Jeremy Schmidt of Becker Schools, “but we do want to prepare them.”

Students are shown how to stay quiet and follow their teachers’ instructions during lockdown, however that’s not all they can do to keep themselves safe during a violent incident. 

It is also important for parents to have conversations with their students about what to do in case of a violent situation. Conversations should be age appropriate, but they are very important to have in some form. Zerwas of Big Lake Schools notes that many families will talk about fire drills at home, having a conversation along the lines of, “Where will you meet mom and dad if there’s a fire and you have to get out of the house?” Students can be taught to wait at the street corner, or flee to a trusted neighbor’s house. It is equally important to teach students what to do in case they are confronted with an attacker. 

Chief Baloun of BPD suggests a “Run, Hide, Fight” mentality during a violent situation. The best thing to do when in an emergency situation is to get away from the area, if it is safe to do so and won’t draw the attention of the attacker. The second best option is to barricade away or hide from the attacker until law enforcement can deescalate the situation. The final option, if there are no other means for surviving, is to confront the attacker and fight back. 

Fortunately, local law enforcement is trained to deal with the situation quickly, and they regularly train on school campuses to make sure they can swiftly respond to an incident. The Sherburne County Sheriff’s office is named as the department in charge of responding to a violent incident at the schools, though, according to Chief Baloun, that does not mean that local law enforcement officers of other departments won’t respond to a 911 call. 

Commander Ben Zawacki of the Sheriff’s Office says that their department is not trained to wait outside the school, but rather to go in directly and take care of the threat quickly. Other departments in the nation, as has been seen in national news, does not necessarily have this approach, but the Sherburne County Sheriff’s Office does. 

After confronting the threat, the officers also have plans to ensure that any victims quickly receive medical care if needed, and they will make sure there isn’t a chaotic scene at the school as parents come for their students. They will make sure everyone gets home safely after the incident is over. 

Safe Community

Media coverage may make school shootings seem commonplace, but statistically they are very unlikely to happen, and schools in Sherburne County are prepared to deal with any threats. 

In all, local schools and law enforcement agencies have done a great job doing everything possible to keep students safe. Beyond that, this article has outlined actions that families and students can take to protect themselves, including reporting changes in their friends’ behaviors to trusted adults, remembering to run, hide, and fight during an emergency, and having conversations about how to react in an emergency situation.