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Our View: Duluth schools 'pretty high security'

API Technologies installer Dan Kjoberg of Floodwood installs security locks on one of the doors at Lowell Elementary School in Duluth in January 2008. The locks were part of updated security at the school. file / News Tribune

With the tragedy and horror of school shootings becoming all too common, Duluthians can consider this assurance: "Physically, our buildings are pretty high security, because we're in pretty modern buildings," Duluth school district Superintendent Bill Gronseth said in an interview this week with News Tribune Editorial Board members.

Duluth's modern buildings are the result of the district's controversial but productive-nonetheless comprehensive reconstruction and new-construction overhaul of school buildings districtwide: its $315 million long-range facilities plan, or Red Plan.

"Back in time when we were having long-range facilities discussions, there was a lot of discussion about the balance between 'safety' and 'welcoming.' We want our kids to be safe, but we also want people to feel connected to the building and not have it feel so institutional," Gronseth said. "We have secure entrances. We have our access cards on most of our buildings. We have cameras. We have alarms. We have automatic lockdown buttons. So we're in a pretty good spot."

The Duluth school district also has partnerships with mental health providers who work in Duluth's schools with a goal of addressing issues with students and families before they escalate into something horrific and regrettable.

"We have been very creative in Duluth. We have a model that other districts all around the state are coming to see how we do it," Gronseth said. "We probably have a higher ratio of services for our students because of the partnerships we have developed."

Aggressive, creative approaches are what are needed statewide, Minnesota Attorney General Lori Swanson, a gubernatorial candidate, said when asked about school shootings and gun violence during a meeting with editorial board members this week.

"We've got to work on the school counselors. We are fourth from the bottom right now in the number of school counselors per pupil. (Minnesota is) fourth-worst in the country. There's something like 750 students for every counselor. We should be doing better there," Swanson said. "When you look at a lot of the school shootings, it's the troubled kid, it's the expelled kid, it's the kid, you know, who was bullied. And I think by having some school counselors who can find those kids and intervene, that makes a great deal of sense. We should do that."

Other gubernatorial candidates interviewing with the editorial board ahead of the Aug. 14 primary offered similar sentiments.

"We can't be last in terms of (the number of) mental health people in our schools and (the number of) guidance counselors," said U.S. Rep. Tim Walz, a former teacher.

"Obviously, everybody recognizes that there's a huge mental health issue. And I think we're getting better at that, but we're nowhere near where we need to be, particularly in our schools," said Jeff Johnson, who served six years on the K-12 Finance Committee as a member of the Minnesota House. "We've frankly had a policy in some of our school districts to intentionally ignore kids who are disruptive and violent because it might have a disproportionate impact on one race or group. That's just insane to me. (With) a couple of these kids, there were warning signs — warning sign after warning sign — and we as government chose to ignore it."

Criticism can be leveled, too, at the Minnesota Legislature and at Gov. Mark Dayton for their failure this session to approve $28 million to make school buildings safer, audit school security, provide mental health grants, train school staff, prevent suicides, and more. The funding had broad bipartisan support, but Dayton vetoed it, as he said he would, because it was in a larger omnibus spending bill that contained other expenditures he didn't support. The governor had vowed to sign a standalone bill.

Lawmakers and the governor did, however, include $25 million for school building safety improvements as part of the $1.47 billion bonding bill signed into law. The Duluth district plans to apply for a cut to better secure entrances to school offices, Gronseth indicated.

No amount of precaution will prevent every school shooting or other tragedies. And no level of assurance can leave us feeling completely safe. But when politics gets in the way of saving lives, that's horrific, too.

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