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After this year’s campus shootings, how to make students feel secure in the classroom?

September 1, 2018

Santa Fe High School sophomore Alexandra Benitez doesn’t feel as secure going to school following the February school shooting in Parkland, Fla., that took the lives of 17 people.

“I definitely felt safer before that happened,” she said.

This month, students in New Mexico and across the nation are returning to school wondering if districts have heightened security measures in response to recent shootings and threats of violence. Tragedies such as the one in Parkland and closer to home in a school in Aztec shook the nation and emphasized the need for stronger school security. In Santa Fe, a number of on-campus threats and related “joke threats” last year also proved the need for greater security and community awareness.

Santa Fe Public Schools officials say they have implemented new security measures such as visitor identification scanners and door lock-jam devices to help combat threats and ease student and staff concerns. However, many also feel that more funding for counseling and social workers would be a more significant step toward safer schools.

Carl Marano, principal of Santa Fe High School — and the target of a threat made by a former student last year — says that school safety is always a priority. “As a principal and educator, we need to make sure our students are getting a quality education and that they’re safe,” Marano said. He has repeatedly said he feels safe coming to school every day.

So do several students from Mandela International Magnet School, such as junior Elijah Estrada, who said he feels “pretty safe” but wishes there were “more security guards.”

District Superintendent Veronica García points to a number of other safety measures in place, like perimeter fencing, alarms, cameras, new door locks and rules requiring students and staff to wear their personal identification cards on campus.

This year the district has initiated a new policy requiring all people who enter a Santa Fe Public Schools facility to scan a government-issued identification card such as a driver’s license through a system that compares their personal information with the national sex offender registry to see if the visitor has sex crimes on his or her record.

In addition, García says a new federal law about false threats increases the penalty for making jokes about school safety.

“If you make a false threat, you can be charged with a fourth-degree felony,” García said. “That’s a serious offense that can go on your record. We need to make sure our kids know that it’s not a prank, it’s serious.”

Sheyenne Hoskisson, a sophomore at Santa Fe High School, has seen some of these security measures implemented, but she’s one of several students who said they like the idea of armed officers on campus.

“Santa Fe High is trying to put a bar-code scanner on our IDs to make sure no one gets in,” she said. “I’d feel safer if there were trained cops and police on campus, ready to respond in [any way] in case someone has an idea.”

Marano agrees. “Student resource officers, especially at high schools, are a necessity,” he said.

A student report on school safety measures presented to the school board in May by former Capital High student Gabriella Rodriguez and former Santa Fe High student William Wiebe said many students approve of the idea of school resource officers. But the majority oppose the installation of metal detectors, another safety prevention idea touted and used by some districts.

For the time being, the school board has rejected the idea of allocating funds to hire school resource officers for a number of reasons. Board President Steven Carrillo, who supports the idea, said he wants to return to the discussion sometime this year.

However, the question of guns on campus is highly controversial.

“For some people, they want armed guards and bulletproof backpacks … then we have the other side that says, ‘No, don’t make our campuses prison-like,’ ” García said. “I think that’s always the challenge — you have two very different views on school safety.”

Marano said that Santa Fe High relies heavily on students to help with school safety. “Our students are learning to be more vigilant,” he said.

García said encouraging students to speak up about their concerns has made a difference, as in the Santa Fe High School threats of last year. “ ‘See Something Say Something’ has made a huge difference,” she said. “The students have reported to us potential threats that have prevented us from having a situation.”

A common issue that has surfaced in the debate about school security is funding. Extra dollars can do a lot to fund school security measures but also to prevent school violence by increasing resources — such as counselors — for students who might be dealing with mental and behavioral health issues, García said.

Hoskisson, who is not in favor of armed guards on campuses, agrees with the need for more services for students.

“Guns and weapons are not the only worries,” she said. “I wouldn’t want anyone to get hurt, no matter if they’re hurting others or themselves.”

Given the momentum on school security, from safety training to student-led rallies against gun violence, Marano feels optimistic that a safer future for students is on the horizon.

“I saw [that] students want to be the voice of change — they’re tired of the negative news,” he said. “It’s a changing world. I’m getting a sense that positive change is on the way.”

Niveditha Bala is a sophomore at Mandela International Magnet School. Contact her at niveditha.bala@mandelainternationalschool.us

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