The Reality of School Safety in Rural Areas

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Written By: J. Lasswell
May 8, 2024

To gain a better understanding of the challenges facing rural school communities, I reached out to Greg Hopkins, Assistant to the Superintendent, Food Service Director, Transportation Director and “pretty much everything in between” for East Washington School District in rural Pekin, Indiana

Have you ever ever traveled through the nation’s sprawling rural areas? Sometimes you’ll pass a sign suggesting to stop at the nearest gas station, as there aren't any services in the next 45 miles. You can drive for an hour without seeing any stores, gas stations or municipal buildings–yet millions of Americans populate these areas. Have you considered the challenges that these vast stretches pose in an emergent situation? With around 14% of Americans living in rural areas, let’s take a moment to consider the monumental hurdles these communities face. 

Rural living offers many attractions, including a strong sense of community, lower crime rates, and a predictable pace of life. However, these same factors can present challenges in emergencies. Remote locations result in longer emergency service response times, gun ownership is more prevalent in rural areas and correlates with a 37% higher rate of firearm deaths than their urban counterparts (though it's important to acknowledge that suicides contribute significantly to this statistic, further emphasizing the challenges of rural emergency response). Familiar routines can also lull residents into a sense of complacency, potentially making them less vigilant against unforeseen threats.

To gain a better understanding of the challenges facing rural school communities, I reached out to Greg Hopkins, Assistant to the Superintendent, Food Service Director, Transportation Director and “pretty much everything in between” for East Washington School District in rural Pekin, Indiana, which serves around 1,300 students K-12. 

“You know, the whole point of being in a rural area does create its own problem – we are just far enough away from things that it's going to take time to get those people and services here…we're about 15 minutes away from the sheriff's department.” 

Research shows that living in a rural community puts one at a distinct disadvantage in the event of an emergency where first responders are needed. A 2017 study of emergency medical services response times in rural and urban communities found that the average response time nationwide was 7 minutes from the 911 call to arrival on scene. That median time increases to more than 14 minutes in rural settings, with nearly 1 of 10 encounters waiting almost half an hour for the arrival of EMS personnel. In emergencies like severe allergic reactions (anaphylaxis), where death can occur within 15 minutes, the criticality of rapid first responder response becomes abundantly clear. This urgency is further compounded by the potential threat of an active shooter on campus, where immediate intervention is crucial to save lives.

Fortunately, Greg and his community in Pekin, IN, experience a distinct lack of persistent threats to student safety, such as gang activity or frequent shootings. “Probably the biggest threat we have there are cows out in the road.” However, as our history of school shootings demonstrates, the communities affected by these attacks hardly ever anticipate them.

Besides concerns of active shooters, student wellness is at a disadvantage in rural communities due to a lower staff-to-student ratio compared to suburban or urban schools. Many school districts, such as Greg’s, face the challenge of hiring and retaining the necessary personnel to stay on top of vaping, drug use and other common behavioral challenges that are best facilitated by trained professionals, such as SROs or mental health professionals.

“Teachers in these areas can almost name their price. There is such a need for them…I've seen more turnaround over there in the last few years because we just don't have the big money to entice them.”

Greg is all too aware of their staffing issues–being the Transportation Director in a low-staff school community means that the responsibility of getting his students to school often falls on his lap. “You know, I am not only the one that's over transportation, but if I don't have a sub guess who's driving. So, you know, I drive quite frequently in the morning and evening. So that makes for a long day in terms of people you have immediately on your teams.” With responsibilities being stretched thin over a limited number of qualified people, maintaining a standard of safety is a perpetual challenge for many rural school districts.

As Greg pointed out, funding is the primary obstacle to both staff recruitment and acquiring essential safety and security resources. The entire scope of a school district’s safety and security needs requires a myriad of assets and services, all with a price attached. Rural schools, which generally have much smaller budgets, are forced to pick and choose which safety and security assets they can afford, instead of aiming for a comprehensive approach. Not only does this weaken the preparedness potential of the district to face emergencies, but it puts an undue amount of public pressure on rural school administration to make due with little. As stated in “Challenges and Changes Faced by Rural Superintendents,” a study by Marcia L. Lamkin published in Rural Educator vol. 28:

Concurrently, due to cost-saving measures in many small rural districts, the rural superintendent has less assistance to complete key tasks and must thus complete those tasks himself. The burden of being the only administrator in the central office – sometimes in the district – plus the demands of the closely-knit rural community and the calls for personal accountability render service to rural districts distinct from service to suburban or urban districts, where the superintendent would enjoy many layers of administrative assistance and separation from daily classroom and community concerns.

When a category EF-4 tornado ripped through New Pekin in 2012 with 175 mph winds, the community’s emergency readiness was tested. Greg vividly remembers walking out of the school, onto the playground and seeing the tornado pass behind their school, narrowly missing their campus. “What was so unique about that situation is what little damage it did to our area. 15 minutes northeast, it destroyed a high school.” The tornado destroyed twenty homes, leveled a highschool and killed a family of five. Despite the significant damage, it's a miracle that more residents weren't injured, considering Pekin's lack of immediate resources for responding to a tornado, the only major natural threat the town faces. “When there is a possible storm coming, we really don't have a good place for the community to shelter in, other than the buildings, which are not ideal either in a true tornado–I mean they're bricks and steel.” Greg tells me that even with a grant that only requires 25% matching, they still cannot justify the expense for purchasing a community tornado shelter, whereas Salem, a larger town 10 miles north, is able to afford three tornado shelters. 

Rural school districts have unique budgetary constraints that require deliberate and calculated grant funding language. Current safety grants fall short in capturing how limited the budgets of rural districts are, and the cadence of how the current funding is distributed often leaves rural school district leadership to allocate funding to immediate safety concerns, rather than making well-informed purchases that serve the totality of a school community’s needs. Tailoring safety grants to the specific needs of rural schools is crucial to ensure their long-term effectiveness and empower them to create safe learning environments for their students.

While rural schools and other communities with limited resources and funding are ever fortunate to have ultra-dedicated administrators like Greg Hopkins willing to take on the mantle of every vacant post in his district, we must continue to ask our legislators to take a deeper look into the unique needs of rural school districts, so we may encourage funding in the name of prevention, rather than reaction.