By Joyce Coronel
Noah Johnson spent 26 years with the Tempe Police Department. Now, he’s making sure students, staff and volunteers in the Kyrene school district are safe while they’re at school.
Kyrene’s Safety and Security Coordinator is a retired police commander who brings wide-ranging experience to his role. “I served in every department in the agency, from patrol, to traffic, to K-9 to SWAT. I did a lot of things,” Johnson told Wrangler News.
“When I left, it was as commander of the metro division where I did a lot of emergency management, large scale events and large-scale incidents like protests and things of that nature.”
Johnson began his work at Kyrene last March when the district developed the new staff position to further ensure safety at its more than two dozen schools. Districts around the country have also begun to hire former law enforcement and public safety officials to enhance security.
“Responding to a crisis is more than a bullet-pointed process,” Johnson said. “It’s how to manage a crisis and how to respond appropriately and give out information as circumstances are presented.”
When it comes to the safety, watching over Kyrene is a bit like managing the security of a small city. With 16,500 students plus about 2,100 staff members in 25 schools, it’s no small task.
“I have a lot of primary responsibilities,” Johnson noted. “One is to update and manage the emergency operations plans for the district. I update the emergency response procedures for teachers and staff, lock-downs, evacuations and things like that.” He also instructs principals, staff and teachers in those areas.
In the event of a crisis or an incident at a Kyrene school, Johnson is the point man, integrating with local law enforcement. That was the case recently when Chandler police advised Kyrene about a suspect on the loose in the vicinity of Pueblo Middle School and Paloma Elementary School on the city’s west side.
“It was a domestic violence situation where the suspect was armed and had been seen jumping from neighborhood to neighborhood fence,” Johnson said. “It was contained but not completely contained and that’s why they had us issue the lockdown. “
Due to the nature of the incident, Johnson and Kyrene officials didn’t want to send students walking into the neighborhood or getting dropped off from busses. “We had a methodical release to assure students’ safety,” Johnson said. “It was probably about 5 p.m. by the time we got all the students where they needed to go.”
Of course, every parent’s darkest nightmare is that a child would fall victim to a school shooting. According to the Center for Homeland Defense and Security at the Naval Postgraduate School, there were 15 school shootings in 2010. In 2018, that number had spiked to 110. So far this year, according to the same source, there have been 64. Those numbers apply to schools for students in kindergarten through grade 12.
“Of course we must always be prepared to mitigate and prevent and put policy processes in place to stop a potential school shooter,” Johnson said, but the reality is more along the lines of the recent lockdown at Pueblo and Paloma.
Overseeing the safety and security of Kyrene students involves so much more than hypervigilance to ensure a shooting never takes place.
“Kids get sick, they get hurt, they fall off playground equipment or whatever it might be—fights, threats, a power failure in August—even something simple as a water main break and now we don’t have water in the school,” Johnson said. “Are we going to move students or keep them there? All of those kinds of things can happen and they need a system in place to assure students’ safety.”
Many times, things take place off campus that have a direct impact on students at school.
“Kids can get online at 2 a.m. and circulate things and the next day at school it’s all over. And the emotion and the anger and all those things that occurred at 2 a.m. online—now we are dealing with it at lunch unfortunately,” Johnson said.
“We know we very well as parents nowadays we to have to be very interactive with our children and be aware of what they are doing online because they now are exposed to that evil world very quickly and very easily with a small box in their pocket. And we need to be hyper-vigilant with that.”
When it comes to cyber-bullying, the district is working to help students, “but a lot of those situations turn into a threat and that’s where I get involved to work with the schools,” Johnson said.
Erin Helm, communications and marketing director for the Kyrene school district, said the district is committed to the safety of all students and staff and that Johnson’s broad experience in law enforcement provides expert help.
“As a former police commander, he has expertise in emergency preparedness, crisis response, and best practices for school safety and security. He is a highly valued member of Team Kyrene,” Helm said.