TRAVERSE CITY — A security consultant organization is wrapping its wide-ranging assessment of Traverse City Area Public Schools’ buildings and operations this week, with positive comments for the district’s security efforts so far.
Jason Russell, founder and president of Secure Education Consultants, led a team of three consultants through a three-day assessment of TCAPS’s 16 school buildings between Monday and Wednesday. TCAPS hired Secure Education Consultants in July to conduct an assessment of the district’s security.
The organization has worked with more than 100 schools in Michigan and hundreds of schools and non-school clients nationwide on security assessments, post-incident reviews, crisis assistance services and safety and security reviews.
Secure Education Consultants’ process includes reviewing district policies and procedures, examining district facilities, interviewing stakeholders, observing day-to-day operations and making recommendations to district leadership. The consultants spent two to three hours at each TCAPS building, Russell said.
TCAPS staff have said so far that the consultants have been thorough in their assessment, according to Superintendent John VanWagoner.
Russell said he and his team have been impressed with TCAPS’s security measures and procedures. TCAPS is one of the best school districts they have surveyed, he said.
“If I was a parent here, I would feel very comfortable sending my kids to this district,” he remarked.
Among TCAPS’s strengths is the security of the district’s exterior doors, TCAPS’s focus on the behavioral side of preventing violence at school, the district’s connection with local law enforcement and TCAPS’s blue light alert system.
During crises, a main concern is making sure those in the area are told what is happening, Russell said. The blue light alert system flashes and sends a message throughout the buildings and along the outside of the buildings.
Secure Education Consultants will issue a report to the school district and offer recommendations for improvement in about a month’s time, Russell said. He usually presents his findings during a closed session, to ensure the safety of the school buildings.
VanWagoner said he thinks the district will have to walk a fine line in choosing what to present to the public and what to keep in closed session, and those decisions will have to be made when the board and administration receive the results of the assessment.
TCAPS Board of Education President Scott Newman-Bale agreed, adding that he would like to make as much public as possible, without compromising the safety of the schools.
“The generalities and things that we can share, we definitely want to share,” VanWagoner said.
The recommendations that they will make with will likely include training in certain areas and more consistency in procedures across the district, although TCAPS is already pretty consistent, Russell said.
Whatever recommendations they make will be reasonable, Russell added. “You want schools to still be schools, so we try to be reasonable in the recommendations that we make. We’re not trying to turn schools into prisons. You can kind of go crazy with security, you can ‘what if’ things to death.”
While the assessment will wrap up, for the most part, this week, Secure Education Consultants will remain engaged with the school district for the rest of the year – especially if they begin to make some of the recommended changes, Russell said.
The assessment is costing about $2,000 per building, which is about $34,000 for TCAPS’s 17 buildings. That cost will be covered almost entirely by a state-funded grant, which Russell worked with legislators on.
TCAPS began conversations about school security in the summer, and the board of education added “identify areas of improvement related to safety and security,” to their newly developed strategic plan.
Newman-Bale said he’s glad that TCAPS was able to act quickly on that priority and get an assessment in, especially since Secure Education Consultants now has a lengthy waitlist.
Secure Education Consultants has about 1,000 school buildings to assess in the coming year, including Grand Traverse Area Catholic Schools, which they have assessed previously. The organization also has been in communication with Kingsley Area Schools about doing an assessment there as well, Russell said.
As part of the school district’s effort to focus on security, TCAPS also has improved the schools’ exterior doors, hired a full-time safety and security coordinator and is working with local governments to hire school resource officers.
New state funding would reimburse districts up to 50 percent for officers placed in their buildings, so VanWagoner went to both the city and the county governments with a plan that would have the local government and the school district each paying 25 percent of that match. The Grand Traverse Sheriff’s Office would staff deputies at West Senior High, West Middle School and East Middle School and the city police department help fund a school resource officer at Traverse City Central High School.
Both the Grand Traverse County board and the Traverse City commission discussed the idea at recent meetings. Grand Traverse County Administrator Nate Alger said he would return to the county board with more exact estimates on costs, but there was concern voiced by Sheriff Tom Bensley about the ability to find staff.
Traverse City commissioners expressed an interest in learning more about what would be expected of them from this partnership and a clearer plan of how the management of the officer will be handled, but they also had concerns about the effectiveness of school resource officers and whether they would prove harmful to students from marginalized backgrounds.
In a presentation to the city commission, Traverse City Police Chief Jeffrey O’Brien said SROs could act as mentors to students, hasten police response time to crises at the school and act as a deterrent for school shooters. But, he also acknowledged that research on the effectiveness of school resource officers is inconclusive, and there is evidence that officers in schools disproportionately target students from marginalized backgrounds.
He added that discriminatory behavior would not be tolerated by him or his police department.
VanWagoner said he is still waiting on the criteria for the grant from the state government, including the timeline in which the grant will need to be submitted.
As for concerns about the negative impacts SROs can have on certain student populations, VanWagoner said it’s important that the school district find the right person.
“The real key to an SRO is getting the right person; somebody that is there with the intent of trying to build relationships with kids, and be able to talk about the dangers of some of the things that our students are faced with,” VanWagoner said.