In the wake of the nation witnessed another tragic school shooting in Nashville, which claimed the lives of three children and three faculty members of Covenant School.
The incident sparked outrage across the nation as yet another reminder students are continuing to be victims of mass shootings.
The incident again brought a spotlight to school security and the measures officials are taking to keep students safe. Districts across the Phoenix area say they have revamped their measures to ensure what happened in Tennessee doesn’t happen in the region.
This incident in Tennessee in late March was the deadliest school shooting since 21 people were killed in May of last year at a school in Uvalde, Texas, where 19 children were killed by a single gunman.
A report by the National Center for Education Statistics found more school shootings with casualties occurred during the 2020-21 school year than in any other year since data collection began in 2000.
The research showed a total of 93 school shootings with casualties at public and private elementary and secondary schools during the past school year, increasing from 11 a decade ago. Forty-three of those shootings resulted in deaths.
The shootings are not limited to elementary or high schools. On Oct. 5 in Tucson, University of Arizona professor Thomas Meixner was shot and killed by a former student while he was heading into his office.
According to UArizona, the killer was former student Murad Dervish, who was kicked out of school for his behavior and who had threatened faculty members such as his former teacher who he shot. Dervish is currently awaiting trial in southern Arizona.
The University experienced another shooting when three faculty were killed in 2002 by a student at the College of Nursing.
School-related shootings in Arizona are low compared with other states like California, which has seen 169 school-related shootings since 1970, Arizona has had just 23 since 1970 with seven killings, according to K-12 School Shooting Database.
Getting more secure
In Maricopa County school districts have been hiring additional security staff, auditing school safety infrastructure such as fencing, gates, locks, electronic surveillance systems and reworking rules for admitting guests and parents into their buildings and grounds.
Officials with Tempe Elementary School District, a district that has 23 schools and an estimated 11,027 students, say they have implemented new security measures to prevent any incident that concerns student safety.
“Whether they are riding on our buses, playing on our playgrounds or learning in our classrooms, our employees are dedicated to maintaining a healthy and safe environment. While we can never predict when a critical event may occur, we strive to use our safety measures to protect all of our students and staff,” the district said in a statement.
Officials stated the district has implemented regular practices of evacuations, lockdown drills, lockout drills and fire drills, regular review of school and district facilities and safety features. They implemented partnerships with local law enforcement agencies School Resource Officers at Tempe Elementary comprehensive middle schools
Created a threat vulnerability assessments performed annually at each school and District site by District safety and security staff with threat vulnerability assessments performed regularly at each school and District site in conjunction with the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center.
“Our safety and security measures are intended to keep our campuses secure as well as to provide knowledge and tools to protect our students and staff in the case of an emergency. Safety and security protocols will continuously be reviewed and updated as necessary,” the district stated.
Some southwest Valley school districts have partnered and created the Southwest Valley School Safety Coalition.
Representatives from multiple school districts attended, including the Agua Fria High, Buckeye Union High, Avondale Elementary, Liberty Elementary and Litchfield Elementary school districts.
The event’s purpose was to collaborate on ideas to ensure safer schools within Southwest Valley districts.
The summit was created by Superintendents Mark Yslas, Jodi Gunning and Dr. Betsy Hargrove after the tragedies at Uvalde Elementary School.
Safety officials also in attendance from the cities of Avondale, Buckeye and Goodyear.
“The (Southwest) Valley School Safety Summit was an initial conference/training of West Valley educators, first responders and community partners with the objective of starting a conversation on how to create the safest learning environments for our staff and students,” Gunning said. “This was a great first step in helping various school districts work in tandem with their respective first responder organizations.”
The summit will continue to build on partnerships in April as another summit is being planned, which will focus on parents as partners.
The Agua Fria Union High School District is one Valley school district that has increased access to mental health support, development of strong community partnerships and investment in on-campus safety equipment.
As of fall 2022, the district hired a School Resource Officer at Canyon View High School. Now all five campuses have a dedicated SRO every day. The district also invested an additional $375,000 to hire three additional security guards for each campus, increasing the number from five to seven interior security guards.
The district invested $1.2 million to upgrade security at all campuses, including gates, doors, cameras and alarms. At a cost of approximately $500,000, the district recently purchased 21 weapon detectors currently being installed at entry points on each campus with Verrado High School being the first in the state to have this.
Arizona Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne released a statement in support of armed law enforcement school resource officers on campuses.
Horne is urging the Phoenix Union High School District board to adopt a finding of the district safety committee after a student at Betty Fairfax High School was arrested after being found carrying a gun onto the campus.
“There is overwhelming support among parents living in the Phoenix Union district, statewide, as well as classroom teachers, to keep children and staff safe by having school resource officers at the schools,” Horne said in a statement.
A statewide poll, conducted by Phoenix-based OH Predictive Insights, shows 78% of respondents consider school safety very important and 81% support having a law enforcement officer on campus.
The release stated a similar study done in the Phoenix Union for the 2021-22 school year by the district’s Classroom Teachers Association showed 80% of respondents believe resource officers have a role on district campuses and 82% said they witnessed positive interactions between officers and students.
The district removed those officers in 2020.
Horne has sent a letter to mayors statewide asking them to support efforts for school resource officers and have their police departments share data.
Outside of the schools
The Arizona Business and Education Coalition in partnership with Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone, and the Arizona School Administrators are hosting the third annual School Safety and Security Summit.
This will be a three-day safety summit April 23-25, where discussions will be held based on information from the U.S. Secret Service and FBI on school safety and keeping children safe in the face of mass causality incidents.
“The purpose of this conference is to congregate leaders in the field of education, public policy, law enforcement, psychology and planning to expand the awareness and implementation of best practices and recommendations in school safety, security, trauma-informed services and mental/behavioral health resources. Participants will leave with actionable strategies to engage their communities in the pursuit of safer, healthier schools and neighborhoods,” the organization stated.
Dick Foreman, president and CEO of ABEC, stated the goal of the 20-year-old organization is to continue to find ways to keep students safe.
“The goal of school safety had been around for a long time probably, and with the news of multiple mass causality events involving public schools, this is not a new trend, and it’s a worrying trend,” he said.
Student safety in recent years had gone through a drastic change as students were told to shelter in place, which may no longer be the best course of action, Foreman said.
“A lot of protocols are no longer being designed to be neat and orderly. When chaos erupts, it may be best to handle it by prioritizing personal safety and doing what you can in the moment.” Foreman said.
Through the safety summit, Foreman said they have helped districts across the Valley implement metal detectors, inspections requirement, campus visibility and adding cameras. All these measures were designed to increase the sight lines in schools to see what students may be doing.
While the measures are designed to keep students safe, Foreman said there is still a concern campuses will become more like institutions rather then a learning environment if security increases.
For the summit, Foreman said some of the notable speakers attending are Penzone, officials from the FBI and U.S. Secret Service, superintendents from different schools from across the nation, and guest speaker Max Schachter, father to Alex Schachter, who was murdered by Nikolas Cruz at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in February 2018.
The summit’s purpose is to give parents tools and knowledge on what proactive measures they would want their child to have, Foreman said.
“We want to make everyone uncomfortable,” he said. “You’re in the wrong palace if you think this will be a easy conversation or you think there is a simple solution to this issue. You cannot get complacent in not having a conversation or plan with your child, if there was a magic solution they would’ve shared it.”