Warning signs of a potential school attack

JENISON, Mich. (WZZM) -- April 20, 1999, 13 students were shot and killed at Columbine High school. It was a wake up call for the entire nation, but unfortunately not the last school shooting.

By now, many people have probably heard quite a few reports of how schools have reacted, locking doors or changing security at the main entrance. Now, WZZM 13 is taking a different approach to see how schools are being proactive by tracking troubled students and getting them help before it's too late.

Every morning, students take the Pledge of Allegiance and schools make a promise to protect them. Doors are locked and video surveillance is rolling. However, WZZM 13 went to find something cameras can't capture; the warning signs inside classrooms and hallways.

"All of a sudden now you don't care about school, you don't care about grades," says Tom Tenbrink, Superintendent of Jenison Public Schools.

WZZM 13 asked Tenbrink if looking for warning signs could potentially prevent the next school shooting.

"Oh it absolutely could potentially do that, that's why we do risk assessment," says Tenbrink.

Superintendent Tenbrink recalls a former student, who we'll simply call John.

"He was going to buck any society that imposed rules on him.

He was a young man in trouble with the law; a red flag warning for potential danger.

"Potentially a danger to himself or a danger to others," says Tenbrink.

WZZM 13 wanted to find out if students like "John" are really a threat to student safety. 13 On Your Side found that, according to state records, there were 25 expulsions at West Ottawa School District last school year, six involved weapons. Holland Public Schools had 10 expulsions, four of them weapons related. Both districts denied WZZM 13's Freedom of Information request for more details about the cases. However, WZZM 13 did obtain documents from Coopersville Middle School, where a 7th grader brought a knife to school. School reports show that he had 11 previous behavioral referrals and was on medication for an unspecified diagnosis.

"There's things that you look back and i'm sure somebody saw something," says Sergeant Valerie Weiss with the Ottawa County Sheriff's Department.

Sergeant Weiss oversees security at Ottawa County schools. She says a student's troubled history can play a significant role in determining if a threat is credible.

"And if they have the probably or the means to carry it out," says Sergeant Weiss. "Talking with parents we want to know about weapons. We also look at is there mental health issues we need to look into is there is something we can get the student help with."

If a weapon is involved schools are required to contact law enforcement, but Weiss says school officers don't keep track of every troubled student. WZZM 13 asked if school officers are familiar with the students that are having problems.

"If it's brought to them," Sergeant Weiss responded.

"Sometimes we bring law enforcement in and say 'You know what the best thing for you right now is to help you get the help you need'," says Tenbrink.

Tenbrink wants to make sure no student falls through the cracks and he says building relationships is the key, He says that's why at Jenison Junior High School there's an initiative; No student sits alone during lunch time.

"Moments in time that we have to help them get through." says Tenbrink.

Tenbrink says his former student, John, was also stuck in a moment, but he eventually got through it.

"15 years later he is back in our district as a parent with five children," says Tenbrink. "Who knows which direction he could have gone, but the fact is we paid attention to it."

It appears Tenbrink is doing something right.

"Before you can capture a student's head you must capture their hearts," says Tenbrink.

He's had 11 years as a superintendent without a single expulsion.


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