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SAFER Fort Wayne Community Schools piloted at South Side High School

Ella Abbott
One student demonstrates how the open air weapons detection system reacts when a large metal object passes through. The tops light up red and a burst of short beeps alert security personnel.

Fort Wayne Community Schools school safety referendum is on the ballot next week for Fort Wayne voters. The program has been piloted at South Side High School.

Students at South Side High School enter in a line through an open air weapons detection system every morning. Unlike a metal detector, the system looks for specific weapon shaped items – guns, knives, metal cylinders.

Students pass their laptops to security personnel as they pass through, being greeted each morning, before having their laptops given back and continuing on to class. The laptops will set off the security system.

Michael Manuel is the director of security for Fort Wayne Community Schools. He said the weapons detections system looks for items based on shape and volume, so some large metal items – like the laptops and some three ring binders – will set the machine off.

“But those are items that our students are used to and they get those out, so we can get them to class, get them in the building as quickly as possible,” Manuel said.

Manuel said that since the installation of the security system, there has been minimal interruption to students' mornings.

In June, the FWCS board of trustees approved a referendum for the November ballot to support safety and well-being initiatives like the ones in place at South Side in all of the district schools.

Ella Abott
In the morning, students pass their laptops to security as they walk through the open air system. The tops light up green, students retrieve their laptops and continue on to class.

It’s being called SAFER Fort Wayne Community Schools and it seeks a maximum of 12 million dollars over an eight year period. A homeowner in Fort Wayne with an average valued home would pay about $6 a month.

Matt Schiebel is the executive director of safety and community partnerships for FWCS. He said that, while the referendum asks for that maximum of 12 million, they don’t necessarily plan to spend all of that.

“In fact, for 2024, we’ve not budgeted for 12 million, we’ve budgeted closer to 7.2 million, which will translate more to an increase in property taxes of about $4.50 for that average priced home," Schiebel said.

The referendum mixes safety initiatives with wellness initiatives to address violence in schools, both as it happens and at the root cause. Schieble said the push for it came from an outreach of several groups, including parents.

“That was a whole committee that came together that involved business leaders, people from the police and the fire department, people within the school corporation, various ministers and pastors and heads of nonprofits that worked with Dr. Daniel and school representatives to make recommendations," he said.

Last year, FWCS had nine instances of handguns brought into schools.

At South Side High School, they have two peacemakers that will intervene when students have trouble. Chris Lahr is a peacemaker at South Side and he said the main goal is to help develop a culture of peace in the school according to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Principles of Nonviolence.

But he also said he’s an ear for students.

Ella Abbott
Chris Lahr, one of the peacemakers at South Side High School, stands in the middle of one hallway that has been designated the "peace walk," where a display currently memorializes young victims of gun violence. Above Lahr, they hang a flower for each person affected by gun violence throughout the year.

“A lot of kids just need to be listened to," Lahr said. "A lot of fighting goes on, it’s external violence, that’s a reflection of something that’s internal, internal violence. And so, sometimes people just need to unpack. So, sometimes I’m there to break up a fight, and sometimes I’m there to keep a fight from ever happening because we’ve unpacked some of that beef they have inside.”

Lahr, along with his fellow peacemaker, has established a relationship with students to help them feel comfortable about coming to them with problems before they can reach a violent outburst.

“And help them realize it’s okay to have conflict, because everybody does, but there’s certain ways to deal with conflict and you can deal with it in a nonviolent way and so giving people that opportunity to do that," he said."

Money from the referendum would also add two peacemakers to all schools in the district.

Lahr also said part of his job as a peacekeeper is to empower student leaders to also help advocate for peace within the student body. Olivia Soto is a senior at South Side and a student peacemaker. The initiative began during her freshman year.

“This past year has been our biggest group of peacemakers, especially at the peace club at South Side, and I guess what we try to do it just like make the students feel like this is more so a home, a community," Soto said.

Soto said especially this past year, with having advocates and the detection system, she feels safer and less worried when she’s at school.

“When I’m here, I have no worries anymore," she said. "I definitely have noticed the change in my brain from being nervous about things going on outside, to coming in here and now I don’t really think about that at all, I can focus on my schoolwork.”

Money from the referendum would place school advocates in every school, as well as add 18 mental health therapists and 12 school resource officers to the district. While FWCS elementary schools already have licensed therapists, the addition would add them to each middle and high school. The resource officers would also be added to the middle and high schools.

The money can also be used for systems inside buildings that would alert building leaders if a door is left open.

The referendum is on the ballot Tuesday for those living within the FWCS boundaries.

Ella Abbott is a multimedia reporter for 89.1 WBOI. She is a strong believer in the ways audio storytelling can engage an audience and create a sensory experience.