School shootings, and our society’s need to address this problem, have weighed heavily in the thoughts and minds of all of us in the last few weeks after the terrible tragedy in Parkland, Florida, where 14 students and three adults lost their lives. We can’t say it won’t happen here. It has happened in Tomah. An internet search will provide you with information on “46 year-old Martin Mogensen, principal of Tomah Junior High, was shot to death in his office by a 14-year old boy armed with a 20-gauge shotgun.” This short description of the event from Nov. 19, 1969, doesn’t begin to describe the devastation to Mr. Mogensen’s family or the trauma experienced by students and staff from being subjected to deadly violence at school.
Much has changed in the Tomah Area School District in regard to school safety since 1969. However, safety changes really didn’t occur until almost 30 years later — 19 years ago — in 1999, after Columbine — when lockdown procedures were put in place and staff and students began practicing what to do in case of an active shooter in the school.
More changes came another 13 years later in 2012 after the murders at Sandy Hook Elementary School. The FBI and law enforcement officials realized that one single protocol, a lockdown, may not be the best approach to a school shooter. Students and staff needed to have better options to increase their chance of survival.
Today, protocols established by the Department of Education include the ability for teachers to use their professional judgement to determine which option — run, hide, or fight — is best. Continued training of staff on these practices and ongoing age-appropriate discussions with students, as well as practice, is necessary.
After Sandy Hook, the Tomah Area School District convened a committee comprised of school district employees, law enforcement and fire department members, parents and business and community members to specifically focus on school safety and security issues. The charge of this committee was to recommend enhancements/changes to existing safety protocols and building security.
The committee recommended regulating building access by implementing new access protocols along with structural and/or technological changes to all school buildings. The district invested over $350,000 (over the course of two district budgets) to make all of our school buildings harder targets.
The freedom of being able to enter our schools at will no longer exists. Identification of visitors to our schools is required before entering any building. However, the committee also acknowledged that addressing safety issues solely by regulating access is not the only factor in determining building security.
Creating a school climate of kindness over bullying is also critical in maintaining safe schools. The Tomah Area School District has a rich variety of activities established to create a caring environment. From character education lessons and anti-bullying assemblies to kindness activities funded by the Jesse Parker Charitable Foundation and peer support groups, students are regularly engaged in opportunities to help others and show kindness. If our students are connected to one another and our schools, they will be, perhaps, the strongest factor in keeping our schools safe. They will discourage their fellow classmates from causing harm to others. They will stand up for what is right, and they will report concerns and threats.
Ultimately, it takes our entire community to be aware of dangers to our students and schools. I shared the following with parents in an email the day after the shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School:
“Today, I am again sending out information to you to assist you in discussing school shootings with your children due to the events which transpired yesterday at a high school in Parkland, Florida. I wish this were not necessary, and I certainly hope that a tragedy of this magnitude never occurs in our community. However, hope is not a strategy for preventing a school shooting. Our society must determine how to address this issue and it begins with each of us, locally, right here in Tomah. We must begin with understanding our children, the pressures they may be facing and the mental health issues they may be experiencing. It requires attentiveness to our children, asking them daily what is happening in their lives, how they are responding to problems and difficulties, and if they need help. It involves each of us remaining alert to comments and social media posts which may indicate a child is struggling. And yes, it requires us to know the extent to which our children have access to firearms and to ensure that those firearms are secured and not accessible without parental knowledge. Lastly, if all of this happens, we still need transparency and communication. We have to share what we know with each other — the school, parents, Human Services, and law enforcement.
If this communication occurs, then it must also be taken seriously. Parents cannot downplay concerns brought forth by the school. and we must have mental health services accessible for families so that the only option for help is not having a child arrested. We have our work cut out for us, but it is not impossible to eliminate this growing safety issue in our society. The Tomah Area School District is committed to making our school district as safe as possible for our students and staff.”
We can’t say it won’t happen here. We can’t just hope it doesn’t happen here. We must do all we can to address the issues which exist in our society which lead to school shootings.
If you have any questions or comments about the information and opinions expressed in this edition of The School Bell, please contact Cindy Zahrte, District Administrator, at firstname.lastname@example.org or 374-7002.