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Are your kids safe at school? (10/13/2013)
By Jen Burris
Parents denounce WAPS safety problems, lack of communication

Are Winona Area Public Schools safe?

Parents, students, community leaders and administrators at Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) gathered on Thursday, October 10, at the high school to discuss school safety in the wake of reports of a student accused of bringing a handgun to school and pointing it at classmates on multiple occasions.

Some parents criticized school administrators' lack of communication, saying that the system meant to protect students was broken, that poor communication between school administrators, parents, and students was worrisome.

Attorney Kurt Knuesel, who is representing the boy accused of bringing the handgun to school, spoke about the incident with the permission of the juvenile’s family. Knuesel stated that there had been previous interaction between the juvenile and school administrators and law enforcement officials.

The family reported that the juvenile had been bullied since the fourth grade, Knuesel explained.

His own mother reported him for suspicious activity, he said. “This summer she called 911 on her own son, twice, because she said she needed help, and nothing was done,” Knuesel said.

The open forum was scheduled following an incident at the Winona Senior High School (WSHS), in which a student allegedly brought a .22-caliber handgun onto school property on a regular basis beginning last May. Although other students saw the 15-year-old boy with the firearm, they did not report it.

The student was arrested September 30, charged with second-degree assault, possession of a dangerous weapon on school property, and terroristic threats.

Superintendent Scott Hannon opened the meeting by expressing concern that it took so long for someone to come forward regarding the incident.

“It been a collaborative and cooperative effort,” Hannon said of the investigations of the allegations. “But I have to tell you I’m very troubled. I’m very, very troubled that since last May it’s apparently been going on — some students knew — a parent knew — and also this fall. It troubles me very much that nobody said anything,” Hannon said.

Crowd members were able to ask questions and voice their concerns about the incident, as well as the way school leaders and law enforcement officials responded to the issue. It was asked whether students' use of social media could be tracked thoroughly, and if there had been comments on social media sites before administrators found out about the situation.

WSHS Assistant Principal David Anderson explained that administrators do keep tabs on students' social media accounts and noticed no comment on what was going on until after school officials were made aware of the situation.

Audience members also asked about the ability to search vehicles, lockers, and backpacks. Hannon stated that the school has the right to search these items if they are on school property.

A mother asked administrators why she found out about this incident through her kids and newspapers without hearing a word from school officials. She noted that although she feels the school is safe, administrators dropped the ball on informing parents.

Anderson explained that high school principal Kelly Halverson sent out a message to all those signed up for instant alerts through emails and text messages, and the school website contained information about the incident.

Hannon took responsibility for not notifying all parents in written form, explaining that he felt contact would be more meaningful after the meeting, so that parent input could be considered in the letter.

Several attendees of the meeting commented on the lack of security at the high school entrance. One parent explained that he brought his mother to the school to show her around, but did not encounter a single person in the school who asked them who they were or what they were doing.

“There’s no security here, as far as I’m concerned, at all; it’s just a free-for-all,” the parent reiterated.

Nelson Rhodus, juvenile prosecutor with Winona County, explained that placing a police officer on every corner, searching every backpack, and putting up metal detectors may not be practical. Rhodus also voiced concern that implementing these measures would likely make students feel less, rather than more, safe. What was really missing from the forum, he explained, were the children who were involved.

“In my mind what needs to happen is there needs to be some way for the kids to understand that these kind of things are important. They are serious, you do need to come forward and say something. It’s not your fault, you’re not going to be punished, you will remain anonymous,” Rhodus said.

At the close of the meeting, Hannon thanked attendees gathered in the media center and said school leaders had a lot of work ahead of them. 


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