By Mary Struck, The Kohler Villager – As I was about to buzz the school office door on my way to meet with Kohler School District Superintendent Quynh Trueblood to learn more about the school’s new Community Resource Officer and security measures, a polite gentleman leaving the office held the door for me.
I have had courteous young students do the same in the past, and their fine upbringing was duly noted. But while I appreciated being spared the ritual of having to ring the annoying buzzer and wait for office staff to unlock the door, in today’s world that polite gesture could potentially lead to a security breach in the school. I am already familiar to school staff, so it wasn’t a problem. But to the nice gentleman who held the door for me, I was just a stranger carrying a black backpack (it had my camera equipment inside). Had I been an unfamiliar visitor, it would have been important for the school to have an opportunity to assess and possibly detain me before allowing entrance. (No visitor can get into the school without first going through the office).
Unfortunately, heightened security is the new normal, even at small schools like Kohler. Parents dropping off cupcakes are no longer allowed to take them to their child’s classroom. They must buzz the office door, and then wait for their child to come and retrieve the treats.
In March 2018, some bi-
partisan bills were passed allowing the Wisconsin Department of Justice to allocate grant money to schools for improving safety and security. Kohler has been awarded approximately $100,000, but Trueblood said the Kohler School District was ahead of the curve even before the state’s DOJ initiative was established. After the Sandy Hook school shooting in 2012, Kohler spent more than $80,000 on security improvements, which have included adding shatter-
resistant film to the glass on windows and classroom doors, fobbed doors so that no interior or exterior door is unlocked, the new camera system that was installed in the offices, and more.
Recently, $26,000 of the grant money paid for single-button activators distributed to school staff members to keep with them. Activating the device sends an alert for an immediate full response from agencies all over Sheboygan County. There is also a schoolwide alarm and public address system with special codes that alert teachers if there is an intruder.
As part of the beefing up of school security at Kohler, and in response to parental concerns, the school and Village collaborated in providing a Community Resource Officer who would be in the school full-time. Officer Matt Hocevar, who has been with the Kohler Police Department since 2005, assumed that role at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year. The state grant does not cover his salary, so it is split between the school and Village. During summer breaks, Hocevar returns to his regular patrols for the Kohler Police Department.
Hocevar has received training from the National Association of School Resource Officers, where he was taught the “Triad” concept of school based policing. It divides the officer’s responsibilities into three areas: teacher, informal counselor, and law enforcement officer. Hocevar also completed several training programs that specialize in teaching rapid response actions to active shooter events, and he was certified in a school safety assessment program. “I feel my training makes me prepared for my new role at the school,” said Hocevar.
Trueblood said Officer Hocevar has been invaluable in helping to make sure the school’s “Golden Rules” of safety are practiced. Those rules are: 1) See something, say something. 2) Check in at the office and wear an ID lanyard at all times. 3) No propping doors or letting friends in. Hocevar’s primary duties at the school are to educate the students and their parents, monitor the school for the purpose of intelligence collecting, and look for any potential security breaches.
Trueblood said Hocevar is already making a difference in his relationship-building with students. She said the school has never had students dress as police officers for Halloween before, but last Halloween there were six.
Hocevar goes into classrooms, especially the lower grades, and helps students with response drills alongside the teachers, which Trueblood said has been really helpful. In the middle school, Hocevar presented the dangers of vaping and how to report it. He was a part of the “Prom Promise” program, where high schoolers promised not to drink and drive, as well as practice other safety measures. Trueblood said that for the first time, the school now has someone who is on the students’ side in helping them make good decisions, while also informing them of the consequences of poor decisions.
Hocevar monitors the human traffic flow and patterns in and around the school, and briefs the school daily or weekly on gaps in security that he observes, so the school can refine their security protocols. While it’s human nature for students, staff, and visitors to become lax in practicing the school’s Golden Rules of security, Officer Hocevar is there to notice and provide reminders. When he is monitoring patterns he makes sure his own movements don’t become a predictable pattern that could be monitored and exploited by someone with bad intentions. This practice has earned him the nickname of “Batman” around the school.
Trueblood said the school has a strong, multi-disciplinary threat assessment team, which includes Officer Hocevar along with the school psychologist, the counselors, building administrators, and the teachers, who probably know their students better than anyone at the school. Student behaviors are routinely assessed for whether they are low-, medium- or high-risk. According to the Department of Justice, suicidal ideation is the main risk factor identified as most likely to lead to threatening or harmful behavior. If a student is suicidal, along with exhibiting certain other behavioral issues, they are classified as a high-risk student and an official safety plan for that student is put into place rather than sending them off to their regular classroom. Trueblood said the school currently doesn’t have any high-risk students, but some low-risk students are occasionally put into the safety plan, when it is determined that they are a threat to themselves, or a targeted student.
Trueblood said that while the school administration and staff want to be vigilant, they don’t want to convey an atmosphere of excessive hyper-vigilance to the point of creating undue stress for themselves or the students. She feels that practicing the three Golden Rules of security inside and outside of the school is the best way for the teachers, students, and administrators to live their lives.
Trueblood said that working on doors and buttons is considered secondary to the work they do in encouraging kids to become friends with each other, resolve conflicts, and report things that aren’t right – because students and teachers have a lot of inside knowledge about classmates. Middle school and high school students also have a phone app that allows them to send anonymous reports.
“I feel very sad that the core work this year has been about safety and security,” said Trueblood. “But what I’ve realized is that this is the world we live in, and I feel very, very committed to being prepared. So there is structural preparation; there is emotional preparation; there is practice on how to avoid, deny, defend preparation; and underneath the iceberg of all this – the foundation – is having a relationship-based community where people feel included, and where we are kind and looking out for each other, because when you don’t have that, it can lead to threatening situations.”