Digging Deeper: Safety in our schools - WKOW 27: Madison, WI Breaking News, Weather and Sports

Digging Deeper: Safety in our schools

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MADISON (WKOW) -- Madison's La Follette High School's recovery from a spate of violent and threatening events serves as an example for all Dane County schools in addressing safety concerns.

But even at La Follette, there's concern not enough has been done.

La Follette has dealt with a window-breaking melee, a potential school threat and a student who brought a loaded weapon to school.

In February, Principal Sean Storch told a school community meeting school district officials were making safety changes in response to the incidents. They included creating alternative learning experiences for some of what he says are the small percentage of students accounting for the vast majority of safety concerns.

"At least the kids who are going to cause harm to other students, they're gone,"  La Follette sophomore Joe Finkelmeyer says.

"We did create an opportunity starting fourth quarter for students that's off-campus that's really been a success,"  Storch says.

Data seems to show La Follette's proactive steps in the wake of the early year troubles have been a difference maker.

Storch says 16 students were suspended for fighting in January.  By April, Storch says that number had plummeted to four.

With student suspensions as a gauge of a school's safety climate, statistics from the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction for the most recent school year available show a convergence of challenges for school districts in Madison and its neighboring suburbs.

The data show even the relatively small Stoughton Area School District has a strikingly high rate of students suspended for what's called endangering behavior - a rate that's roughly equivalent to one student for every class (96 suspensions among 3,162 students, 2015-2016).

Another seemingly telling statistic: the number of students suspended for assault in the Sun Prairie School District, 73, is equal to that suspension number in the much larger Madison Metropolitan School District.

According to the data, the rate of all suspensions was highest in Stoughton (4%), lowest in the Middleton-Cross Plains School District (1.2%).

At La Follette High, school safety improvements are applauded by both students and parents, and are being analyzed by schools throughout the county.

Carol Haag is a Special Education Assistant at La Follette who hopes school officials continue to address issues with safety.

"We've had kids who've hit and kicked and spit, and thrown things,"  Haag says.

Haag singles out a particularly disturbing incident as an example of the potential for danger.   

The incident took place at a Monona restaurant, as a job coach worked with a La Follette student during the school day.  And the incident was captured on a surveillance camera and viewed by 27 News.  The coach sternly urges the student to stop watching TV and resume his assigned work.  After the job coach challenges the student on what she believed was a threatening comment from him, the student begins to shout a stream of profanities at the coach, and pushes her to ground.  He yanks at her body as she remains on the ground.  "EMS personnel were on scene and immediately began tending to (victim), who stated her..arm hurt very badly and believed it was broken,"  Monona Police reports state.  Authorities say the student was arrested and jailed.

"We find ourselves in a really hard situation, between giving the best we can to our students, and protecting ourselves and protecting other students,"  Haag says.

Joe Finkelmeyer's father, Corey Finkelmeyer agrees more needs to be done related to security.

"There are still some safety issues that the teachers are still dealing with,"  he says.

An April letter from Finkelmeyer and more than two dozen parents to the Madison School Board members with purview over La Follette and neighboring Sennett Middle School singles out the district's behavioral education plan as not working, in large part due to "insufficient resources."  The plan emphasizes second chances for students with conduct issues.  "If you're going to have this plan in place, you have to fund it in a way that makes it work," Corey Finkelmeyer says.

School Board member Mary Burke responded to the letter with support for the plan.  And Storch says the plan's features include accountability for student violations.

27 News asked Storch if inability to sufficiently staff plan initiatives leaves school personnel without proper help in dealing with potentially disruptive students.

"We work together as a team and communicate our needs with each other, over and over again until we meet those needs,"  he says.

After La Follette's early-year safety episodes, a second Madison Police officer was posted to the school to assist the school's regular, educational resource officer, but only temporarily.  "If we were to have a second person, I would highly prefer that second person to be a school psychologist, social worker, someone who really works closely with families and with kids," Storch says.

Officials at La Follette are continuing to address safety.  Storch says there are plans to limit entry and exit to the school to fewer doors, and notes all doors being used currently are supervised.  He also says all students will be required to show IDs during the school day.

"I'm not going to like it,"  Joe Finkelmeyer says.  "A lot of students are not going to like it."  School officials say there are school district expectations that all students be prepared to present identification, but Storch says at La Follette it will become a standard procedure.

Even Finkelmeyer says visitors from other schools have instigated past trouble.  He maintains La Follette remains a strong school, with a high-achieving student body and well-regarded staff.  "I'm just going to defend my school,"  the sophomore says.

La Follette's safety progress and plans remain under the microscope, as other schools and districts prepare for the future needs of school safety.

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