Lawrence superintendent talks school security, relationships ahead of meeting on public safety
photo by: Nick Krug
After multiple weapons- and threat-related incidents in Lawrence schools over the past couple of weeks, Superintendent Anthony Lewis wants to talk with the community about options to address the problems.
In summary, a Lawrence High School student allegedly brought a loaded gun to school on Feb. 6; a Southwest Middle School student on Feb. 11 reportedly threatened to shoot another student; another student allegedly brought a loaded gun to LHS on Feb. 12; a Free State High student allegedly used Snapchat to threaten to shoot an LHS student on Feb. 13; and on Feb. 14, a student reportedly brought a Taser to the LHS campus.
After the Feb. 12 incident, Lewis said he wanted to bring community members to the table to talk about these public safety issues. That conversation is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday in the cafeteria of Lawrence High, 1901 Louisiana St.
“This would just be an opportunity to get a large number of people in one room to just have some dialogue and just to hear their comments, their thoughts, their opinions, suggestions,” Lewis said, “and then to also communicate what we need from them as we continue to always look at the safety of our students.”
Since those incidents, Lewis said he’s heard from several people in the district with ideas. Some have suggested clear book bags; others’ ideas have focused on buildings’ entrances, which is an issue Lewis noticed early on in his time at the district.
Lewis’ first official day on the job was July 1, 2018. He came to the district from Kansas City, Mo., where he said all of the middle schools and high schools and one of the elementary schools had metal detectors at their entrances.
The first time he toured LHS, he said, it was a surprise when he saw students going in and out of the building without using keypads or any other security measures.
“That really was alarming to me,” Lewis said. “And we can’t keep saying, ‘Well, once construction is complete, we’ll secure’ — no, we have to do something now.”
The Kansas City, Mo., district also scans ID cards of all visitors and prints visitor ID badges, he said. Many of the schools also require students to wear their IDs around their necks. The entrances require students to scan badges. That means that if a student is suspended, for instance, the school can cut off building access, Lewis said.
Open lunch was not an option for students in KCMO — “That was something that just kind of raised the eyebrow for me as I learned about Lawrence,” Lewis said.
He said the district is looking at research on metal detectors and other options; “We just don’t want to have knee-jerk reactions and put metal detectors in a building and end up negatively impacting our students,” he said.
Lewis said that, luckily, the incidents over the past couple of weeks have been reported by students and parents.
“I was honest with (district staff) — I said, ‘Guys, our luck is going to run out,'” Lewis said. “‘So what are we going to do now to ensure that that does not happen?'”
But beyond the surface issue of entrances, Lewis said he wanted to address the root cause behind students making these choices. He said he wanted to make sure all students in the district have an adult whom they can trust and connect with at school.
“We have to have a pulse on every single student in this district, because all it takes is just one student, right?” Lewis said.
Last week, he asked LHS students to write down their names and then write down the name of an adult they trust and can talk to in the building, Lewis said. Staff can reach out to the students who wrote down “no one,” but it will also give administrators a chance to see who gets named frequently, so they can ask those teachers and staff members what they’re doing to successfully build relationships with students.
As a hypothetical, Lewis said if he or a teacher has made a personal connection with a student, that student might think twice before bringing a weapon to school.
“As I’m beginning to put that weapon in my bag, I’m thinking, ‘That would disappoint Dr. Lewis,’ or ‘That will disappoint Ms. Jones. I shouldn’t do that,'” Lewis said, explaining a hypothetical thought process. “That’s how we begin to prevent some of these incidents.”
He also wants to involve more of the community in looking out for student safety.
Lewis said he had an opportunity to talk with the student who allegedly brought a gun to school on Feb. 12. Lewis said that student felt threatened by other kids who don’t attend Lawrence schools, and he’d brought the gun for self-defense. Lewis said that if other community partners were aware of that situation, for instance, perhaps they could’ve kept an eye out so that the student wouldn’t have felt the need to carry a gun.
He wants to involve students, parents, community partners, local elected officials, law enforcement and anyone else who can help the district come to solutions and improve student safety inside and outside of district walls, Lewis said.
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