By NOAH VERNAU
Portage Daily Register
PORTAGE, Wis. (AP) — To illustrate what’s different about school safety in Portage, Peter Warning points to the numbers and letter “156-L” written above his office door.
Portage Community School District received $213,082 in two rounds of safety grants from the Wisconsin Department of Justice beginning last summer. Portage spent $26,834 of the grant money to number every room in every school at the start of the 2018-19 school year. It makes things easier for first responders, said Warning, himself a first responder from the Portage Police Department.
During a fire, people can tell emergency workers precisely where help is needed.
“It’s practical,” Warning told the Portage Daily Register. “It’s efficient. It makes it less probable that something bad could happen.”
The $100 million worth of safety grants awarded to Wisconsin schools has also allowed Portage and other school districts to install shatter-resistant film for windows in doors, steel posts to prevent vehicles from driving through school entrances, video-monitoring equipment and second sets of doors at their entrances, among other fortifications.
The state money has helped Portage do many of the things officials had already planned but couldn’t afford, Superintendent Margaret Rudolph said.
“It’s huge. You have a plan and then you accelerate that plan,” she said.
Beaver Dam Unified School District received $381,485 and Baraboo School District $310,392, money used for many of the same sorts of fortifications.
“It was a nice boost for immediate returns,” Baraboo Superintendent Lori Mueller said.
Baraboo fenced in its playground, bought two-way digital radios for communication with Baraboo and Sauk County law-enforcement officials and held straining sessions.
According to a 2017 Wisconsin Youth Risk Behavior Survey, 6.9% of students reported having been threatened with a weapon. In the same 2017 report, the state estimated between 1% and 2% of Wisconsin high school students had taken a gun to school within the past 30 days.
The data were noted in Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction’s “Mandatory Reporting of Threats of School Violence,” an online resource developed in accordance with a law the state Legislature passed in March 2018.
The law, Act 143, set up a State Office of School Safety, which paid immediate dividends in Baraboo last year, Mueller said, after her district was faced with a flood of threats and media requests related to a photograph that appeared to show Baraboo students making a Nazi salute.
The threats Baraboo received on social media “were so significant we couldn’t count them,” Mueller said. “The office helped us manage media, but their biggest support was actually being here, in Baraboo, helping us ensure the safety of our kids.”
With help from the state safety office, Baraboo never had to cancel school in response to the threats, Mueller said.
Act 143 also required schools to perform on-site safety assessments and drills and to enact safety plans. Employees were also put under a legal mandate to report threats of violence. According to Act 143, those deemed by the state to have “intentionally failed” to report a threat can now be faced with fines of as much as $1,000 and imprisonment for 6 months, or both.
Not everyone is convinced the efforts will attain their purported goal. David Perrodin, a recently retired director of special education at Cooperative Educational Service Agency 5 in Portage, believes the state is wasting its time and money on fortifications. Perrodin received his doctorate of philosophy in educational leadership and policy analysis at University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he researched high-stakes safety decisions in schools, health care and the military.
“The bollards in front of Portage schools? That’s a waste of money because intruders don’t enter schools with their cars,” Perrodin said. “It’s what the people want to see, though. They want to see physical changes.”
In August, Perrodin will release a book called “School of Errors: Rethinking School Safety in America” and, on July 3, he will appear on PBS for “School Safety in America: Rhetoric vs. Reality.”
He believes more money should be spent on prevention, such as teaching students “situational awareness” so they might better identify and report school threats themselves.
The Wisconsin Department of Justice Office of School Safety provides on details about how much of its grants have been issued solely for school fortifications, but Perrodin estimates they account for about 90% of what’s been spent so far.
“People (and school boards) want to see cameras. They want to see the entrances to schools get doubled or tripled and that’s what’s happened,” Perrodin said. “Almost nobody who works in schools holds a degree in mental health, but they’re asked to do things a psychiatrist should be doing. Schools are being asked to handle things they’re not equipped for.”