19 News Special Report: Ohio Gov. DeWine gives 1-on-1 interview addressing school safety

Published: Apr. 27, 2023 at 4:10 PM EDT
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CLEVELAND, Ohio (WOIO) - School safety has been top of mind for parents and students after the recent school shooting in Nashville.

It’s leaving many parents in Ohio wondering what the state is doing right now to protect our children at school.

Our investigative team had the chance to ask that question to Governor Mike DeWine at the Ohio School Safety Center in Columbus.

19 News is the first news station to get a look inside.

“Every child is just precious, and I don’t care where they live. I don’t care who their parents are. We need to try to do everything we can to protect them,” Gov. DeWine said.

There is an important reminder of what they’re working for as soon as you walk in the door at the Ohio School Safety Center.

A collage of Post-its with handwritten notes by students hangs in the hallway, each with a student’s response of what school safety means to them.

Students are facing serious threats at school every day, from school shootings to suicide, self-harm and bullying.

The team at the safety center is made up of first responders including police officers and EMTs.

School counselors, social workers, school bus drivers and even sports coaches are also on the team.

They’re on the ground across Ohio, helping schools and first responders prevent and prepare for threats.

“No one can guarantee there will not be a tragedy in Ohio. But we have an obligation, a moral obligation to do everything that we can to give schools the assistance they need and to protect every child,” DeWine said.

The safety center opened its doors in Columbus in late 2019.

It now plays a central role in guiding schools -- and the need is urgent.

We asked Gov. DeWine what other action he is currently taking to keep children safe at school.

“I think over $200 million that is now flowing to the schools,” he replied. “All that money will be out, that’s real money. And we’re also giving the schools the expertise and the help in regard to how to spend it.”

So far, about $215 million in state grants has been awarded to nearly 2,800 schools across Ohio.

That money is for security upgrades like new cameras and automatic door locks.

We also learned school safety plans aren’t just filed away with the state anymore.

Now, school districts are getting feedback from the safety center and making improvements.

“You know it’s important, you send your child to school, and you want that child to be safe. And we thought there was a real hole here,” DeWine said.

“My goal was, let’s get every school in the state up to up to a certain level, schools can go beyond that. We encourage them to go beyond that,” he said.

The goal of the safety center is to have students, teachers and staff more prepared than ever.

Because sadly, lockdown drills aren’t going away anytime soon.

“I mean, it’s a horrible, horrible thing that kids have to go through this. Generally kids are pretty resilient and they’re going to take their cue from us. And if we’re calm about it. And if we explain to them, ‘this is probably never going to happen. Just in case, this is this is kind of how we do. This is how we prevent things.’ They’ll take their cue generally from us,” DeWine said.

We asked the governor what he would say to parents who might be scared to send their kids to school, especially after the recent school shooting.

“I would say look, make sure your local school, where your child goes to school, is doing everything they can so to follow best practices to keep your child safe. You know, you have every right, it’s your school. It’s your child. You have every right to ask them what in fact they are doing,” DeWine said.

19 News speaks with Gov. DeWine at the Ohio School Safety Center.
19 News speaks with Gov. DeWine at the Ohio School Safety Center.(WOIO)

The Ohio School Safety Center is now up to 53 full-time team members since opening in late 2019.

Emily Torok, the executive director of the safety center, said team members are constantly tracking threats on social media.

“The best part about having that diverse of a group is they can look at every angle of how is this going to impact a school? How is this going to impact their response?” Torok said.

We asked what challenges schools report they’re facing right now.

“Really it’s just grappling with-- how do we get everything implemented? Because you see the tragic news of the school shootings and you just don’t even know where to begin sometimes,” she said.

It’s personal for Torok, who grew up in northeast Ohio.

She said her school district was devastated by several suicides around the same time.

“And I never want people to not have the resources and supports that they need in order to you know, help them move forward and I never want to see students die by suicide,” Torok said.

It’s often the students themselves who spot dangerous situations.

Dozens of leads come into the safety center from the Safer Ohio School Tip Line.

19 Investigates found a 45% increase in tips reported to the tip line from 2021 to 2022.

There were about 460 tips reported last year.

Cuyahoga County ranked second in the state with 58 tips reported to the tip line.

Torok said they take every tip seriously.

Because one phone call could stop a tragedy.

“I tell everybody I have the best team in the state, the smartest team in the state, because it’s true-- they wake up every day thinking about school safety and I wouldn’t want it any other way,” she said.

We asked how many threats the Ohio School Safety Center has stopped.

Torok said it’s hard to track something like that, but they’ve seen real results from sharing leads from the tip line, even across state lines.

Torok encourages parents to get involved if you have questions about your school’s safety plan.

If you’re concerned about a possible threat at school, you can call or text the Safer Ohio School Tip Line 24-hours a day, anonymously, at 844-723-3764.