I was stunned.
On May 24, 2022, I watched the aftermath of yet another school shooting, along with the rest of the world, after a lone gunman entered Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas and murdered two teachers and 19 children. I was stunned, grieved and concerned, wondering how this could have happened – again – to another public school in an ordinary American town.
I felt the weight of this tragedy not only as a parent and as a concerned citizen, but also as a community member elected to serve on my local school board. Because of my role on Topeka’s USD 501 School Board, I have a fiduciary responsibility to help ensure the safety of our students, teachers and school personnel. And yet, school board members also must balance the competing values of school safety with those of establishing a conducive environment for productive learning.
I resolved to expend every effort to balance both values. These were adaptive challenges, for sure; technical fixes would not be enough. In order to fully grasp these adaptive issues, I needed to consult with a public education professional who is immersed in the struggle to balance both values every single day. So, I reached out to the USD 501 superintendent, Dr. Tiffany Anderson.
As a school superintendent, Anderson spearheaded a response to her school community in Virginia after the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007. She is someone who thinks both very deeply and continually about such seemingly intractable matters. To be fair, there are other perspectives regarding the school safety issue, such as gun control or police accountability, that are valid but are outside the scope of this article. For this article, I chose to connect with Anderson as both a parent and school board member regarding the safety procedures and practices of our district.
In the wake of both the Uvalde shooting and a March 4 incident at Olathe East High School that left two adults wounded, Anderson admitted this is a frightening time to send our kids to school. There has been a heightened desire for USD 501 to engage in both proactive and reactive steps, including securing mental health services and increasing a police presence at elementary schools. Current procedures also include a focus on training, such as conducting building intruder drills, engaging in emergency plans, directing crisis teams and role-playing disaster scenarios. Anderson believes proactive approaches to safety have been successful for the district. The Topeka Public School district has not experienced a school suicide in approximately four years, and she believes this is partly due to the district’s mental health services.
The shooting in Uvalde occurred the day after the Topeka school district’s last day of school. That meant school officials had limited opportunities to debrief students and teachers regarding the tragedy. Instead, Anderson initiated a district-wide listening tour, similar to her response to the Virginia Tech shootings. She began this process by setting up meetings in a variety of community venues and communicating to the public that these listening tours would be to acquire thoughts and feedback on the safety status of the USD 501 schools. Community members could show up at any or all of the available sessions to talk with Anderson and district staff about their concerns. (They could also apply for district jobs and enroll their kids for the upcoming school year.)
As a result of the tour, many people inquired about the district adding metal detectors. As a school board member, I recognize the line between making schools harder targets and turning them into fortresses. “It’s a careful walk,” says Anderson. “The key is listening.” She held that listening allows us to respond with facts about subjects like metal detector effectiveness (which could also be a barrier to learning) and bringing the issue back to training, communication and district safety procedures (like intruder drills and role-playing scenarios). At this stage, the district is not utilizing metal detectors, but this could change in the future as the school board considers every available option for hardening schools.
Anderson believes our challenge is now. In working to solve issues of school safety adaptively, she maintained that two things will always be an issue: Not enough money and legislation that handcuffs schools from making local decisions to serve their students as they see fit, whether it’s a parents’ bill of rights or banning transgender students from participating in girls or women’s sports, neither of which became law this past session in the Legislature.
To Anderson, the path to solving these concerns is to ensure school policies are clear and enforced, and provide opportunity and access through use of surveillance cameras, mental health services and a variety of safety options. There’s the potential to engage in safety practices by virtue of being in public spaces, fueled by efforts to create change through legislation, activism and our school board’s policies.
“Not a one-and-done but a systemic issue,” she says, given that layers are progressively added to our system continually. She said many parents feel safe about sending their kids to school in the district because USD 501 has its own school police department. Importantly, as a result of the listening tour, Anderson will be sending out letters to parents outlining the consequences of students bringing firearms to school or otherwise infringing upon school safety. She is hopeful this will put people on notice and further strengthen the varied layers of protection surrounding each school.
After my discussion with Anderson, I am less stunned, still grieving the loss of life, still concerned, but absolutely stronger in my resolve to figure these issues out for the benefit of my school district.
Any efforts at promoting safety must be multifaceted, and there is no way to make any place totally safe. A focus on training, mental health interventions, activism, engagement with lawmakers and establishing open lines of communication with the public are all solid ideas for protecting our schools. Not that these factors are foolproof, but they can contribute to a powerful effort. The challenge to overcome these adaptive issues is ongoing. I’d recommend these practices to any school board looking to fortify spaces of learning for the benefit of their students and staff. With all that I have now learned, I feel cautiously optimistic that my children, and the children of my fellow citizens across the city of Topeka, will be safer at school because of the practices and procedures put into place at USD 501.
Keith Tatum is a native Kansan, born in Manhattan and raised in Topeka. Tatum has dedicated his career to public service and empowering every voice within our community. His professional experience includes nonprofit administration and 20-plus years of diverse leadership capacities in state government. He currently serves as the deputy secretary for the Kansas Department of Labor.
Tatum holds a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Kansas and a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Washburn University. He and his wife, Teresa, live in Topeka and have a blended family of 10 children and one grandson.
A version of this article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of The Journal, a publication of the Kansas Leadership Center. To learn more about KLC, visit http://kansasleadershipcenter.org. Order your copy of the magazine at the KLC Store or subscribe to the print edition.
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