The Deputy Police Chief takes issue with me

From: Mike Tusken
Sent: Tuesday, March 11, 2014 4:50 PM
To: Harry R Welty
Cc: William L Gronseth
Subject: RE: Closed Campuses

Mr. Welty,

I appreciate your honesty and candor to your constituent despite my belief you and perhaps some of your fellow school board members and school administrators are on the wrong side this issue and as such, place in jeopardy school and student safety. Duluth is an anomaly in having open campuses both across Minnesota and the nation. Despite a national epidemic of school violence and bullying we have yet to find the impetus to make school safety a priority. Status quo is the easiest solution. It requires no tough decisions, planning or budgetary concerns. We can operate the way we always have and hope for the best but we are better than that. Bottom line, student are placed unnecessarily placed at risk daily.

Gordon Graham, a well-respected risk manager who speaks nationally and internationally provides insightful advice on how to mitigate risk and liability. He simply says, “If it is predictable, it’s preventable.” We know having students leave campus and having unsecured campuses increases student risk and decreases safety. In loco parentis the Latin term for “in place of the parents” requires schools to act in the best interest of the children. While taking no action to secure the campuses and create a safe environment for students may not be a required, it is expected. Leaders are responsible for change and should assess the evolving environmental changes locally, regionally and nationally and adjust priorities accordingly. Safety always needs to be a priority, it is one of the basic functions of the government.

School shootings were unheard of 20 years ago and Columbine was 15 years ago. Since that time, the frequency of school shootings has become epidemic. Just last week I met with the FBI who was ordered by President Obama to provide regional training to law enforcement leaders to ensure consistent responses to school shootings in the wake of Sandy Hook. In May this training will come to Duluth. School shootings aside, parents expect leaders to keep their kids safe during the school day. Can we say we are doing our best to facilitate for student safety? No, everyday students are placed at risk by flawed District policy. Kids bullied, assaults, chemical use, sex, truancy, car crashes and accidents outside of school buildings during school hours happen daily. They are predictable and preventable with good policy decisions.

I hope for the sake of our children a call to action is not predicated by tragedy. It will be too late and we will be responsible for a lack of action despite many documented incidents and warning signs. We cannot ignore best practices to guide policy and decision making.

The right decision is evident and factually based; we cannot afford to minimize or ignore it.

If you would like to discuss this matter further, I would be glad to do so.



Michael T. Tusken
Deputy Chief of Police
Duluth Police Department

To which I replied:

Officer Tusken,

You make an eloquent case and it compels me to elaborate on my thinking.

If a child dies on my watch due to a potential decision to keep campuses open I will own the result and critics and voters will have their chance to exact whatever justice they wish. About the time I left the school board a child was killed crossing Grand Avenue after getting off a DTA bus. Perhaps I can be blamed for allowing children to ride DTA buses to school. The accident helped kill that arrangement. On the other hand today our high school children, particularly those who are less well off, have a great deal of difficulty getting to and from school for after school activities. Some students must walk two miles to school even on twenty below zero days. Ending DTA service has been a two edged sword.

Invoking Sandy Hook will win you my sincere sympathy. I am not a gun enthusiast and I have little use for the purist calls to protect the Second Amendment as though guns were sacramental objects. Sandy Hook was probably a closed campus and I believe all the new Red Plan schools have the same means to deter unwanted visitors that Sandy Hook had. Certainly we could go even further. We do not have metal detectors in our schools yet other schools have taken that precaution. When I was last a Board member I had to go through a detector to gain entrance to an Inner City school in St. Louis, Missouri.

We could go further. We could ban our children from driving themselves to and from school. As you know far more children die in auto accidents than from guns and fights. I appeared in court to fight the Red Plan and the judge who presided over our case had just lost his son a month earlier when the boy drove a car out of one of our high school parking lots.

We do live in an age of anxiety however , I defy you to point to any previous Era of history which did not offer up greater reasons for anxiety. That anxiety can drive us to make foolish decisions. Today parents put their children at risk by refusing to vaccinate them against deadly diseases because of rumors they read on the Internet. The Mother of the Sandy Hook shooter thought she was bonding with her troubled son by giving him a chance to practice his firearm skills. Some parents aren’t even thoughtful caregivers. I spent the day at Denfeld today. Among many of the stories I heard was of a child not taking his/her meds because a parent was selling them.

I do not think we do our children credit by attempting to remove them from all dangers. This is a lesson I learned from my father who felt it was important to trust me and my siblings. His chief means of insuring our safety was to set a good example for us. I would extend that same trust to our children even when they are hormonal, inexperienced and naive about the dangers of life.

Of course, that is not a guarantee of safety. When I was on the Board ten years ago Public Defender, Fred Friedman, came to Denfeld for Law Day and told the assembled students a tragic and compelling story to warn them off drinking and driving. About two weeks later friends of our family let their daughter stay at an overnight drinking party with friends of both sexes on the strict condition that she promise not to leave the party under any circumstances. She was inebriated when she became infuriated because her boyfriend had a wandering eye. She was killed driving home despite her promise to her parents. She was in that audience with me when Fred Friedman spoke.

I don’t know quite what moral to derive from this story. Certainly it would be a mixed one. Perhaps the point is that life is always full of risk and I think our responsibility is to give our children the best lessons we can and hope they show good judgement even though we know the human propensity to make mistakes.

Having said all this I will admit that whether to close the high schools at lunch has not been one of my top concerns. I’d be more inclined to close the lunch hour for an inferior reason than the safety of our children. I might consider it as this could shield us from lawsuits resulting from our roaming children’s misadventures.

A more practical reason to resist closing the schools is the precarious fiscal situation of ISD 709 which I anticipate will only be made worse in an upcoming teacher’s contract settlement. I don’t think the likely result augurs well for our district, our children or those teachers who still look forward to a long career in our schools. We will probably still be left with too little money to hire extra staff we will need to police unhappy children inside our schools. Even if we found that money children are endlessly inventive little Ferris Buellers. Being so, they will escape our schools and roam around putting our district at the risk of lawsuits.

Fifty years ago our schools emptied out as our high school boys enlisted to fight and get killed in a war for freedom. I find it ironic that we are thinking about denying today’s children their freedom “for their own good.” These children will leave and will still be kids and make foolish youthful decisions. Just a few months ago a beautiful young neighbor of mine texted humorously about having consumed ten tequila shots before coming home too incapacitated to get out of the killing cold.

As an officer of the law you see the sad result of human folly all too often. I appreciate your desire to protect our children but for myself I believe they may be better off if we let them take small risks at a young age than sending them out into a cruel world feeling invincible without our ever giving them the chance to exercise their judgement. Besides that I think it sends a terrible message to them to treat our schools as prisons.

Again, thank you for sharing your thoughtful arguments with me.


Harry Welty


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