Do Students Feel Safe in School?
Updated: Feb 11
A new year serves as an opportunity to reflect on what has happened in the previous year; a time to talk about the past so its shortcomings aren’t repeated in the future; the chance to contemplate and further improve upon safety measures within school. Mishawaka High School (MHS) staff and students remember the threat that provoked a sequence of e-Learning days in the short three-day week (finals week) leading up to Christmas break. The threat, now deemed credible as the Mishawaka Police Department has obtained search warrants and detained a suspect, had some spending their break questioning whether or not they feel safe in school.
Freshman and Alltold Staff writer, Trey Newcomer, verbalized what he felt in the aftermath of the threat,
“I did feel safe until I heard about the threat. At first, I thought it was just a threat that would be resolved in a few hours, but it took a week.”
“Most of the time, I feel safe, (but) my parents are moving me because they feel that I’m not safe,” said former freshman Allison Reppert, whose first day at Jimtown High School was Tuesday, January 18th.
Junior, Tia Stopczynski said, “There’s always things where I’m like, ‘Okay, something can obviously go wrong in this school…’ but I feel like they [administrators] are doing a lot of things to prevent anything major… They do a good job of making the right decisions… Nowhere can be completely safe. There could always be something that happens.”
Superintendent Wayne Barker assured staff and leary students that, “School safety is important… (because) for me, it starts there. Our first responsibility is to take care of those who come into our buildings each day. That includes our students, that includes our staff …The most important thing we can do before we can even educate anyone is to keep them safe while they are here and to take care of the needs that they have while they are here,” said Barker.
Yet, even with the security threat, the majority of students say that the reason they don’t feel safe in school is not because of security, but rather, because of bullying-related alterations that occur in the hallways during passing periods, and as COVID-19 protocols become more lax, the return of the two-way hallways mean that passing periods will become more crowded.
“Bullying is something that makes kids not feel safe... Bullying is something that they [administrators] should just take a more thorough approach on with the kids to make them feel safe,” said Stopczynski.
Junior, Sophia Dentino added, “I feel safe enough to be willing to go (to school)... Kids can be bullies at times, who I’d just prefer not to deal with. They can be somewhat problematic at times, and make the school feel less safe because of some classmates’ strong opinions.”
With his assistant principal background of 14 years, Barker knows that bullying is a delicate issue to handle. He said,
“Typically, bullying happens where somebody says something one-on-one in the hallway, or in a locker room, or somehow in private, somehow through social media. That makes it difficult for teachers, administrators, whomever, to deal with… bullying is one of the hardest things I ever dealt with.
“Many times, I would have a student come tell me ‘something happened.’ And, while I might very likely believe that person, if I talked to whoever the other one person was involved in it, they would say, ‘It didn’t happen.’”
Barker said that instances of bullying were difficult to tackle because, “...unless I could look at security cameras, or whatever the case may be, to prove it, I couldn't necessarily punish someone if I had two people telling me different things.”
“Overall, I do feel safe in school because I know there (are) teachers and police officers who would be there if something would happen… It's mostly the students that I’m scared of, other students in the hallways,” added freshman, Kalie Maassel.
MHS Social Worker, Mrs. Gayla Konanz, validated this mounting concern amongst students. “I want to verify that we [teachers, admin, adults in the building] know that bullying happens every single day here,” she said, “and we have tried to put in some good measures to help, (but) we are very aware that they don’t always work.”
Band Director, Mr. Kaleb Chamberlin, teaches all grades freshman through seniors. Based on his observations around the school and interactions with students,
“I’ve noticed over the years (that) the best time the school culture is up are the two weeks after our pep session. We bring the whole school culture together, we play silly games and run around like idiots to make people laugh, the drumline gets people hyped up, and then people are cool with each other. The mutual agreement is school, excitement, and positivity.”
He added that the reason why certain methods to solve bullying don’t work is because,
“Students learn best from their peers. Leaders learn from other leaders.”
Knowing this philosophy, Konanz implemented something at Mishawaka High School called the SOS Program. The program, which stands for “Students Offering Strength,” is a peer group. As Konanz explained,
“The whole idea is (about) teaching students how to take care of one another, and the big thing, ‘If you see something, say something…’”
“The best thing I can say to students to feel safer is to take ownership in our school safety. We’re only as safe as a school as what everyone’s responsibility is in that. Students have a responsibility if they see something to say something, whatever that is. Whether it's on social media, whether it's in the hallway, whatever it is, it needs to get reported so that our administrators and teachers here can do their job.
“Our main objective is to keep people safe. We obviously don’t want anyone to feel unsafe or for a student to be bullied, and I think the best thing that students can do is to be a part of the solution.”
Konanz hopes that her program helps provide students with the necessary resources to become a part of the solution when it comes to bullying and torment-related social issues. As she explained,
“The main goal (of the program) is to unify us [Mishawaka High School]. [Students] are so influential, way more than us as teachers. We try, we’re going to be there for you, and we’re going to help in any way we can, but students are the ones that are going to make this place a better, safer place.”
She focused on the idea that students have a greater impact within the school system than they generally realize. Their influence is powerful, and it can have good or bad consequences that can, and often do, affect many more than they are aware of, in more drastic ways than they intended.
“People, I think, inherently think they can do things that are wrong and not get caught… Hopefully, all of our students realize that making a threat either while angry, to make someone nervous, anxious, mad, or even just to do it flippantly to get out of school, the consequences for that are far greater than what people may assume,” said Barker.
In the case of this threat, that is especially true, because e-Learning days do not just mean virtual learning and a day off from school, as some might think.
“Some employees ended up not being able to get paid because there was not a role for them to serve… We have other workgroups that support our school operations that don’t have anything then that they can do… Teachers can pivot and adjust their lessons… People (for example) in food service can’t still serve meals to students that aren’t coming….” explained Barker.
“As a result, we’re not able to employ them and pay them because of a law called, ‘ghost employment.’ If we [city administrators] pay people for doing work that they’re not doing, then it becomes a crime for me and for the district… I feel bad for those people.”
But, as Barker continued, “There (are) a lot worse implications than even finances for this person [student who made the threat] because they’ve been charged with a crime.”
These implications mean that it isn't just about the student body; they are not the only ones who question their safety in the school system. The fact is the threat was made by a student to an administrator, and teacher safety remains just as prominent of an issue, too because,
“It wasn’t just administration. It was an open threat and then it was also directed,” confirmed Barker.
Concerning teacher safety, Barker affirmed, “I should always be notified of situations: student fights, teachers involved in breaking up fights… I should always be made aware of that, and to my knowledge, I am.
“Our principals are pretty good about notifying me, because what I always tell them is, ‘I don’t want to be surprised’… The same thing is true for our school board members. I don’t want to surprise our school board members. I want them to hear it from me first because I, myself, want to be able to know what happened…
“We are creating communication trees so that people know who to contact in certain situations,” he added.
So, the remaining question is, “What is the angst that drives some students to behave this way and make threats which put everybody at risk and are an imposition that brings everyone to a halt?” Given the continuous lapses in COVID paranoia, society is facing plenty of high-stress irregularities as is; the January 11th stabbing at Adams High School only adds to the concern over school safety or lack thereof.
Barker pointed out, “Long before COVID, students did things that were wrong, that were threatening, (and) that they went to jail for. I do think the pandemic has exacerbated all these issues: the mental health issues, the anxiety that many people feel… (but) to be able to answer what causes someone to do that is difficult…”
“I think this level of a threat comes from a lot of hurt,” said Konanz. “The person obviously felt hurt by the school and there’s a mixture of rejection and anger… just being cast away. And so, that anger can turn into wanting to do something drastic. When someone’s at their lowest point, that’s when they say or do things that may not be really positive or helpful to the situation…”
From the student perspective, “It starts with the parents and a student’s at-home life. That’s where their first role models are, where they get their influences from, and also, online stuff (plays a role),” said junior, Camryn Long.
“There’s a lack of discipline from parents who don’t implement rules,” added junior, Kaylee Hooper.
Dentino is among those in the student body who are displeased with the lack of information that was disclosed to students in the aftermath of the threat. While she recognized,
“I understand that everything about this situation was unsure,”
she still described a desire to be better informed when unfortunate situations like this occur,
“...I think the way that they [informed adults] view it is we [students] lack the maturity and understanding to grasp the seriousness of certain situations and to grasp the information that’s needed to keep ourselves and the rest of the school safe… If someone [a student] has the capability to bring up negative situations, then the rest of us [students] have the maturity to combat those negative situations in a positive way.”
Konanz tried to reassure Dentino and other students, “Even though there wasn’t a whole lot of information out there, even teachers still don’t know the full situation. Our administration really tried to do what was best, and I’m so glad that they took it [the threat] very seriously…”
Barker empathized with those who wished to have known more information. He said,
“Putting myself in the shoes of a student or parents, I can understand the need for information, or even a teacher because teachers didn’t know either. There were many people in my office who didn’t know. There were administrators who weren’t aware of what was happening. The details were not disclosed even with our board members in detail.”
He summarized, “While I get the need to know that people want to know, legally there is not a need to know. Anything that I could have said to give more information could have absolutely impacted the investigation.”
With regard to the investigation, The South Bend Tribune reported that the student’s attorney, Mark James, “said the teenager never intended, or had the ability, to actually carry out a shooting and was simply acting out of frustration for being disciplined.”
“There was no intent," James said. "His response is typical for being suspended from school. He went a little far…"
“James argued the Mishawaka High School students were not greatly affected by the closure, as they are used to virtual learning during ‘COVID days,’” reported the Tribune.
Hooper disputed James’ one-note argument. “It (the threat) was triggering. It messed with my anxiety,” she said.
The truth of the matter is, “It’s hard to predict what causes someone to do something,” said Barker.
In the end, “It’s not about the legalities…” said Chamberlin. His call to action is, “Instead of getting our torches and pitchforks, can we do something?”
Because when it comes to these situations and their predictability, Barker was disheartened to say that because of some students’ frequent behavior, “Rarely am I surprised.”
According to Konanz, the habitually trivial behavior of some students is because, “We are a social media-driven world now, and it is so easy to throw out hurtful comments, and threats, and things that we wouldn't say to people… When you have that hurt, and you have anonymity, and you can say anything with seemingly little consequence, it’s easy to vomit out that anger and that hatred.”
She added, “At some point, it just comes back to (the) personal responsibility of making wise decisions. Then, maybe that person [student who made the threat] could have turned to the people around them… It kind of goes back to the people that are going to help you make the right decisions.”
As a teacher, Chamberlin hopes that he can be one to motivate his students to make those right decisions. He said, “...Every time something is happening at home and coming into school, all I can do is give people, for the hour that I see them [class period] or the eight hours that I see them [school day], the best possible role modeling while they’re in front of me. When they’re not, I hope I’m sending them out [of the classroom] better than they came in.”
Barker summed up, “I don’t have regrets about how we [city administrators and law enforcement] handled it [the threat]… I think we did the appropriate thing by closing the school and knowing that if we did, we could keep people safe until we determined who it was [who made the threat].
“We had a timeline that we knew we were going to be able to probably get an answer,” he said. “We hoped it would be earlier than what it was… I wish it could have been sooner, so we wouldn’t have lost those days of school because that had an impact on everyone, and it continued to. After we came back, students had to take finals (at) not really the best time.“
At first, many students speculated that the threat’s motive originated from one student’s lack of devoted study time in preparation for finals week. New information has since debunked that rumor, but regardless of the threat’s motive and status,
“Clearly the threat showed that if you decide to make a threat (during) finals week, they [teachers and admin.] will find a way for us [students] to still take finals, for the most part, in-person… so if that was their [the student responsible for making the threat] way of getting out of finals, they failed,” said Newcomer.
That said, finals were disregarded in the 2019 spring semester through the 2021 spring semester, all by fault of COVID-19. Now, due to the threat, many teachers once again opted not to give finals. So, are finals still relevant in the education system?
“… If they were so easily canceled or postponed, then what’s the point in having them?” asked Dentino.
“…I understand that it’s school and we have requirements to meet, (but) finals show that not all kids test well and there (are) different ways for people to learn. You can’t really win in this situation,” acknowledged Stopczynski.
If anything, Barker hopes that this threat will deter other students from making future threats. He said, “I’m hopeful that a message has been sent that there’s a heavy consequence for making a threat like that. I’m hopeful that (this threat) will be a reason for not only that student, but the rest of our students here at Mishawaka High School, or any of our schools, to think before they make a threat like that.”
That said, Stopczynski used her insight as a student to clarify that in the instance of this threat, “One bad student who did a wrong and awful thing does not represent every student that goes to our school…”
*A representative from Mishawaka High School’s administration team was contacted for an interview during the writing process of this article; they declined to comment.