Every morning at 7:30, as students start to filter in, Jim Witt and his fellow administrators at Lake Schools in Northwest Ohio take to their designated posts around the school’s various hallways.
They greet students, joke with them—teasing one about his Air Jordan high-tops (this is LeBron country, after all)—and just generally touch base before the day officially begins.
As superintendent of the 1700-student campus outside Toledo, Ohio, Witt says he probably knows their students on “a much more personal level” than others would at districts of a similar size.
And knowing your students, he says, is key in the efforts to help prevent what feels like it’s become all too common: school shootings. And that context has made the need for the morning pleasantries that much greater.
“It makes us hyper sensitive to kids who may come in one morning and be really down or upset about something,” Witt says. “We try to get to the root of that problem for various reason, school safety being one of them.”
Lake Middle School principal Katie Beard agrees that administrators and teachers need to be on the lookout for warning signs, adding that when you know the students, it’s really not that difficult to tell when something’s not right.
“You can tell by the way a student walks in what kind of day they’re going to have, based on seeing them every single day,” Beard said, adding that if she notices a big difference in a student’s mood, she’ll prod a little bit to find out if it’s something more serious.
“You just try to have a conversation with them right away to try to head it off, [asking things like] ‘Hey, what’s going on? Bad morning?’”
And when they do notice something is off, they make teachers aware and keep a closer eye.
“Often times I’ll pop in to their teachers or send an email [saying] ‘hey, so-and-so looked a little off this morning, keep an eye out, if I need to come see them let me know," Beard said.
Once the first period bell rings, custodians will make sure to lock all exterior doors, and Witt will roam the halls to double check the doors and look for any other kinds of threats.
“I’m looking for anything that would appear to be unusual, or out of sorts, out of place,” Witt says. “We know that kids let bookbags lie around so we check those.”
He says when he first became an educator, school was more about the “Three R’s”—reading, writing, and arithmetic. But he’s definitely noticed a shift in recent years.
“Myself and my admin team spend more time probably worrying about…the safety of kids and staff,” he says. “It’s gone beyond just the normal curricular issues," Witt said.
And that “frustrates” him, he says, “but it’s a necessity.”
The school has a series of cameras, covering the entrances and exits to the various buildings. And they have also sought training for their staff from groups like the non-profit Educator’s School Safety Network.
But as a small district with limited funds, Witt says investing in new security technology—things like bullet proof windows, heavy duty doors-- isn’t really on the table.
But even with all the funds in the world, he’s upfront that he’s still not sure he would invest much money in “hardening” schools, noting that nothing is “100 percent intruder-proof.”
So he’ll continue with the “getting-to-know-you” behavioral approach—and giving his students a hard time about their choice of NBA-inspired footwear.