INDIANAPOLIS — Facing mounting pressure from both liberals and conservatives to do something about school shootings in his state, Texas Gov. Gregg Abbott has authorized a dramatic new tool in an effort to prevent deadly school shootings.
Following the massacre at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas, Abbott has ordered the Texas School Safety Center to conduct "in-person, unannounced, random intruder detection audits" at schools, instructing the state agency to "approach campuses to find weak points and how quickly they can penetrate buildings without being stopped."
The governor’s plan essentially calls for surprise inspections at Texas schools in which an outsider attempts to breach school security to highlight any security lapses that would put students and teachers at risk.
Will Indiana be doing the same thing?
13News contacted Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb to see if he also supports the idea of surprise safety inspections at schools.
A week later, neither the governor nor his office have provided any comment.
But others are speaking out on the idea of unannounced school security checks, and they have strong opinions.
'Keeps us up at night'
The tragedy in Uvalde highlights yet again the vulnerability of schools confronted by an armed intruder. According to investigators in Texas, an outside door at the elementary school did not lock properly, allowing a heavily-armed gunman to enter the building where he killed 19 students and two teachers.
School officials and law enforcement here in Indiana are concerned because they say this is not the last time an armed intruder will target a school.
"Absolutely, it’s going to happen again. Breaks my heart to say that but, yes, it is going to happen again," said Indiana State Police Superintendent Doug Carter.
"This is one of the things that keeps us up at night," added Dr. Jeff Butts, superintendent of the Metropolitan School District of Wayne Township.
Could additional safety inspections keep schools safer, and if so, how should those inspections be conducted?
To answer those questions, 13News spoke with four superintendents – three who lead Indiana school districts and one who runs Indiana State Police. Their responses suggest Texas' plan might not be the ideal approach to heighten school safety in Indiana. They say surprise inspections could cause unintended harm that outweighs any benefits.
Safety inspections welcomed
Indiana law already requires every school to conduct an annual active shooter drill and to have a detailed safety plan. Testing those plans is crucial to help keep students and teachers safe from an attempted attack, according to Carter. Overall, the ISP superintendent likes the idea of spot inspections to help identify weak spots in a school’s security plan.
"I do think it’s a good idea," Carter told 13News. "We should be testing ourselves by doing these kinds of things. I think it holds a level of accountability."
School superintendents agree.
"Security checks are a critical part of making sure our buildings are safe and our students are secure inside of them," said Butts, whose metro-area school district on the west side of Indianapolis is one of the largest in the state. He said those security checks already take place daily. At Ben Davis High School, for example, Butts said a school safety official checks to ensure outside doors are closed and locked between every class period.
The same thing happens in North Putnam Community Schools, according to NPCS Superintendent Dr. Nicole Allee.
"School resource officers are doing safety and security checks, both when school is in session and when it’s not," Alee said. "Checking doors, checking windows, watching playgrounds and who’s coming and going. They do a very solid check throughout the day."
All of the school district superintendents interviewed by 13News say they welcome security inspections to test their procedures and to help ensure their safety plans are working.
Asked about mandating the type of security checks now ordered in Texas, the Indiana Department of Education says it will not comment on safety plans in other states, but Holly Lawson, deputy director of communications for IDOE, shared the following statement with 13News:
"Indiana schools currently conduct routine assessments of all potential physical security vulnerabilities and hardening of all potential access points. This work is included in all school corporations' required safety plans and is supported by state-certified school safety specialists and access to state school safety matching grants."
She said staff trainings, inspections, drills and incident reviews are part of school safety assessments as individual school districts "work with their local first responders to build and implement a plan that best fits their needs."
Texas-style plan could cause 'world of hurt'
But the superintendents say the plan in Texas to conduct safety checks that are completely unannounced is misguided and could result in panic, or even an armed confrontation.
"Seeing somebody unannounced trying to get into a building would certainly alert our resource officers and could result in a situation that could be dangerous," Butts explained. "It could definitely cause a lockdown of the school just by the very nature of somebody going around and yanking on doors."
Asked how schools could realistically test their security vulnerabilities if security checks are not unannounced, Butts offered more clarity.
"I am all for safety checks. I am for doing those unannounced, as long as they have a school person with them, somebody that can escort them around and vouch this is something that’s OK. That means show up at the school, grab the principal and say 'We’re going for a walk,'" Butts said.
"You don’t want to create a situation by trying to test a situation," echoed Todd Hitchcock, superintendent of Shelby Eastern Schools. "I like an approach that’s more collaborative and works with law enforcement. Having someone come in unannounced, I just don’t know about that. We don’t ever want to alarm students if it’s unnecessary."
Allee also voiced concern about unannounced visits from outsiders trying to test school security, expressing concern for their safety.
"I don’t have a problem working with an outside agency, but if you come in street clothes and try to gain access to our buildings, certain people are going to have to know what you're trying to do or you're going to be in a world of hurt when our students and teachers do what they're trained to do," Allee said. "Someone needs to know you're coming. If not, they are contacting 911, and emergency services are showing up on-site without knowing that person isn't a bad guy with a weapon. That’s a problem."
"They're exactly right, so there has to be a single point of contact with the school to let them know,” Carter said. "I like unannounced, but someone at the school has to be aware."
The state police superintendent said he also takes issue with the plan announced in Texas, where the responsibility for conducting school safety checks now lies with the state. He believes the lead on inspections should come from schools.
"I think local control is really important, especially when we're talking about something as important as this,” Carter told 13News. "I think the [school] corporation should be doing it. Otherwise, it becomes this bureaucratic thing. We don’t understand the environments these schools live in. Nobody knows that environment better than the people who actually work there and live there. I really think there has to be buy-in at the local level, and if they want our help, all they have to do is ask."
"I think it makes sense that each school district should be expected to do their own safety audits and own inspections, and we coordinate very well with our local law enforcement," Hitchcock said. "I think we could definitely coordinate something with them."
What Indiana schools are required to do
So far, Indiana's governor and legislature have not called for any new safety measures following the deadly school shooting in Uvalde.
Indiana's Department of Education provided the following summary of efforts to improve school safety across the state:
- As part of a comprehensive school safety strategy, schools are required to annually develop and submit an emergency preparedness plan (511 IAC 6.1-2-2.5). IDOE works to review plans within each school corporation every three years. These reviews are on-site and last approximately three hours.
- To support these efforts, since 1999, all Indiana school corporations are required to have a state-certified school safety specialist (IC 5-2-10.1-9). Specialists receive intensive training and must maintain their certification through annual professional development. Across Indiana, there are currently 2,607 certified safety specialists and an additional 511 school personnel who are currently working on their initial certification. Authorized in 2013, many schools also exercise the option to employ School Resource Officers (IC 20-26-18.2), who are police officers specifically trained to work in schools. Earlier this year, Holcomb signed into law further clarifications to SRO qualifications.
- In 2019, Holcomb signed into law the requirement that all school corporations, charter schools and accredited non-public schools conduct one active shooter drill per school year. For school corporations, the drill must be within the first 90 days of the school year (IC 20-34-3-20).
- Schools seeking additional funding to improve prevention and security measures may apply for the Indiana Department of Homeland Security’s Secured School Safety Grant, established in 2013 (IC 10-21-1-2). In 2019, Holcomb signed various reforms to the matching grant program, increasing its funding and broadening access to smaller schools. It has awarded more than $110 million in state funds, leveraging an additional $99 million in local resources since 2014. Secured School Safety Grant applications for 2022 opened on Wednesday, June 1.