Created on Thursday, 31 January 2013 Written by NATE SMITH
The mother of two elementary-aged students is waging a public campaign against what she considers insufficient safety precautions in Bellefontaine grade schools.
Jennifer Johnson, right, says she sent her brother, Michael Akers, left, unannounced to pick her children up from Northeastern Elementary School to prove a point that after-school security is inadequate. (EXAMINER PHOTO | NATE SMITH)
Jennifer Johnson has spoken with building administrators at Northeastern Elementary School and Superintendent Beth Harman seeking to change how the building dismisses its students each day. She maintains the school is unorganized when releasing students and is unprepared to deal with a stranger or suspicious-looking person seeking to kidnap a child.
Mrs. Johnson says her concerns spiked in the wake of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and she was motivated to address her worries with school officials following an interview she saw on daytime television. She said an FBI agent on a talk show suggested school boards nationwide review their safety policies following the Connecticut school shootings.
To prove her point, Mrs. Johnson dispatched her brother, Michael Akers, to the school one day recently and instructed him to pick up her kindergartner and first-grade students.
According to a letter she submitted to the Examiner forum, Mrs. Johnson admits that she sent her brother to collect her children unannounced precisely because he had never been to the school before and he is someone, “who would be hard to miss in an elementary setting.”
Mrs. Johnson cited her brother’s one-inch holes in his ears and neck tattoos as reasons why teachers and administrators should’ve been leery of him on school property.
School officials and Mrs. Harman reiterate that nothing like what Mrs. Johnson has described has ever happened and that every available teacher is expected to be at the front of the building between 3 and 3:45 p.m. each day as students are let go from school.
As for the date in question, school officials note that neither of Mrs. Johnson’s children expressed any fear or uncertainty about leaving with their uncle.
“If a child showed they weren’t comfortable going with an adult, our staff would never send them with that person,” Mrs. Harman said, noting also that administrators in any Bellefontaine grade school will make special arrangements for any parent who deems it necessary.
“We do keep a list of who can’t pick up certain students and all of our staff are on high alert for those people,” Mrs. Harman said.
But school officials also observe that the stereotypical description of a “suspicious person” isn’t what it used to be — lots of people have tattoos these days and sometimes the most dangerous people appear the most innocent.
“There’s a first time for everything,” Mrs. Johnson said, addressing the notion that nothing like what she fears could happen has actually ever occurred.
“I’m trying to prevent something from happening. I’ve lived in Bellefontaine my whole life and there are more bad people now than when I was that age and the school isn’t always safe.”
Mrs. Johnson said that while talking with parents from other schools, she learned that Indian Lake, specifically, has an elementary dismissal policy that looks more like what she’s calling for at Bellefontaine, which is for students to be dismissed individually to a parent or guardian by a teacher.
City school officials concede that may be true, but point out Indian Lake schools are off the road and have a lot more room to line up cars to gather elementary students one by one.
Mrs. Harman said schools will be able to more safely dismiss students after the move into new facilities at the intersection of Lake Avenue and Ludlow Road.
For now, however, there is no logistical way to improve how the approximately 400 Northeastern students, including about 120 kindergartners are released each day, they maintain.
Students are walked to the front door each day and are permitted to walk to wherever their parent or adult has told them to go, Mrs. Harman said. Some parents wait near the nearby Bellefontaine Cemetery or Mary Rutan Park and have their child meet them there, and crossing guards are present to help them along. Parents would not always want to have to leave their vehicles to come to the door to collect their child, either, school officials maintain.
“We are willing to accommodate any parent who communicates a concern with us,” Mrs. Harman said, “but I don’t know there’s a better way to release hundreds of students each day with the room we have at Northeastern or Southeastern.
“We are comfortable with how the elementary students are released.”