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Portage author challenges school safety narrative in new book
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Portage author challenges school safety narrative in new book

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PORTAGE — Mass shootings continue to dominate news headlines, many of them taking place in schools, prompting state lawmakers and educators to adopt safety measures meant to deter attacks.

But fortifying schools with products not clinically tested and traumatizing students and teachers with simulated active shooter events isn’t making students safer, according to David P. Perrodin, a Portage author and former school administrator who earned his doctorate in educational leadership and policy analysis from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“We’re not building systems that are accessible for kids,” Perrodin said. “We’re just putting fortifications in -- we’re putting the bollards in front, we’re putting the bullet-resistive films (on windows), yet we know people aren’t shooting their way into schools. We know people aren’t crashing their cars into schools.”

Now a professor in the School of Education at Viterbo University in La Crosse, Perrodin spent three years researching and writing “School of Errors: Rethinking School Safety in America,” which releases Wednesday. He refers to it as “the most honest book ever written about the $3 billion school safety industry.”

“I don’t have to accommodate a school board, and I don’t have to accommodate public opinion on this,” he said, citing his retirement from public education. “I can speak truth to power.”

It’s also “a desperate call to action.” Published by Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, the book offers an outline on how to handle chaotic situations successfully, Perrodin said.

He said people need to “embrace the chaos” and learn how to function in situations where nothing is familiar, Perrodin said. That means learning how to be situationally aware and notice abnormalities in your environment.

Schools could take students for a walk around their school and then, at the end, ask them what they saw that was unusual. This could teach them to notice and remember details, which could in turn help them notice warning signs in a potentially dangerous situation.

Instead of helping students pay attention to their environment, Perrodin said parents and schools are teaching children that the world is unsafe. Field trips are canceled in favor of virtual reality tours, robbing students of the chance to experience new environments, valuable practice for adulthood.

Instead of taking proactive steps like making sure students and parents know how to report potential threats and are comfortable enough to do so, schools rely on visible defenses. Perrodin referenced Portage Community School District, where he sends his own children. Each school building features bollards at the main entrance, a frustration for him every time he sees them.

He said he’s worked out the odds of someone trying to drive a car through the doors -- what the posts are meant to prevent -- and it's less likely than getting struck by lightning. Not only that, but the bollards aren’t everywhere students congregate outside.

“We live in a society where we can’t fortify everything. It would be horrible to try to do that, but if we’re going to do fortifications, we’ve got to be sensible,” he said, noting a secure entrance where visitors have to buzz in is one example of a good measure. Having two-way radios is another.

Portage District Administrator Margaret Rudolph said she doesn’t know any details of the decision to install bollards, as she wasn’t in her current position at that time. Adding bullet-resistant film to school windows, however, was part of a safety grant requirement, she said.

Rudolph plans to read “School of Errors” and consider Perrodin’s advice when the district revises its safety book.

“Everything we can do to have safety in our schools, we need to look at,” she said. “It’s a constant education … You continue to keep on revamping everything that you have.”

Perrodin consults with school districts mostly on the West Coast to help improve their safety plans, conducting focus groups with students. He said he doesn’t work with Wisconsin schools -- instead recommending other qualified experts -- due to potential bias and conflicts in his professional relationships. He previously spent 12 years as a school administrator and worked for four years at a school for the blind.

His book seeks to make educators and policymakers think about what’s effective and develop safety plans based on empirical evidence. Intruder drills shouldn’t be about role playing as a shooter or feeling what it’s like to be shot, Perrodin said; they should discuss learning objectives beforehand and reviewing what worked afterward, taking into account that no two attacks are the same. They also should consider how the drills work for students with special needs.

Actor and disability rights activist Danny Woodburn wrote the foreword, for which Perrodin said he was proud.

“Dr. David Perrodin’s book is a tremendous resource and guide on the issues of understanding safety as a whole and the safety of our children in institutions of learning,” Woodburn wrote. “It is also a template for community engagement to create a more inclusive society within the very fabric of those that will make up that future society.”

While conducting research for the book, Perrodin said he sought experts who didn’t agree with his perspective to ensure the book wasn’t steeped in his personal bias. It also went through “numerous” peer reviews and two editors.

“There’s so much wisdom from so many people in the book and anecdotal stories, and even though it’s an intense book, it’s a light read on a dark topic,” he said.

He donated two signed copies to the Portage Public Library in July. Adult Services Librarian Tawnee Calhoun said the library is looking at hosting a book discussion and author signing with Perrodin this winter and will include his book in a display for Wisconsin authors in September.

“It looks like a good book to add to our collection,” Calhoun said.

Follow Susan Endres on Twitter @EndresSusan or call her at 745-3506.

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