A culture of complicity has sent a message to Oklahoma students that it's OK to bring firearms to school, an expert told a state commission on school safety Tuesday afternoon.
Educators, law enforcement and prosecutors are often unwilling to punish students for the crime of bringing weapons to school, said Stephen Mortensen, vice president of Providence Working Canines. Some are lazy and arrogant, he said.
“They'll often say, ‘Well, there was no intent,'” Mortensen told the Oklahoma Commission on School Security. “No lawmaker puts intent in a law of possession.”
Mortensen's company does security sweeps of schools in Oklahoma, Kansas and Nebraska. Guns are typically found loaded and left in unlocked student cars. Students deny knowing they had the weapon or that bringing it to school is illegal, Mortensen said.
“How many students do you think will tell our (dog) handlers this week that it's not theirs?” Mortensen said. “All of them.”
During the last school year, Mortenson's company recovered 27 firearms at Oklahoma schools. This year, they have found 14.
The commission discussed weapons on campus, along with school architecture, mental health and teacher training. They also talked about what changes would have costs and who should pay.
“There are some important mandates that could and should be handed down, but they're expensive,” said commission member Ryan Brown, an associate psychology professor at the University of Oklahoma. “Changing the culture and climate of our schools are things that we can do that cost us very little in terms of financial resources.”
The commission identified the top five security issues to address during its remaining meetings:
• Security training for school staff.
• Updated and streamlined crisis management plans.
• Better access of student records so school administrators can identify “patterns of concern.”
• Modern building standards.
• Mandated meetings for the Safe School Committee, which isn't required to meet now. The group meets weekly through March 5.
The commission also heard from Terri White, commissioner for the state Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
Schools are often reluctant to identify students as at-risk because they don't know what to do next.
About 2 in 5 youth have mental health issues but aren't receiving treatment, White said. About 4 in 5 have substance abuse problems but aren't getting help. Students need help, White said.
But even schools that do have mental health professionals who come in are limited by funding, White said. “We can only see a certain number of students on a certain number of days because of the funding we have available,” he said. “We know this collaboration could be much greater.”
White said that educators also need mental health first aid training. But Sapulpa Superintendent Kevin Burr said what educators really need is for experts to help them.
“I would take umbrage to the expectation that we are singularly equipped to provide this intervention for the populace,” Burr said. “Our focus is academics, and we know that academics are interrupted because of behavior and because of mental health issues. And we need assistance from professionals.”
AT A GLANCE
Quotes from the meeting
• Trice Butler, principal of Wilburton Middle School and commission member: “It's a frightening thing to know that most of our schools in rural Oklahoma were built during what I call the Mayberry days. We do not have Mayberry days anymore.”
• Terri White, commissioner of the Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services: “If you're in rural Oklahoma and you're a mom or dad looking for (child mental health) help, it's incredibly hard and it's incredibly heartbreaking.”