Northwest Allen County Schools Superintendent Chris Himsel addressed recent safety concerns at school board meetings in a letter to parents.
Northwest Allen temporarily ended public comments at board meetings in September because of safety concerns reported by the Allen County Sheriff’s Department. Himsel's letter, sent Friday, followed a WOWO radio interview Thursday with Troy Hershberger, chief deputy with the sheriff’s department, during which he said the department has never directed the school district on how to conduct its meetings.
Hershberger, who is seeking the Republican nomination for sheriff next year, added he is unaware of any safety concerns being reported to the district by school resource officers.
Himsel’s letter disputes Hershberger’s claims and releases excerpts of emails that show safety concerns were shared by a school resource officer, who said other school resource officers had raised similar concerns. The officer, who is not named in Himsel's letter, said he and the other officers are "concerned for the safety of everyone at those meetings."
The officer first shared concerns in a Sept. 10 email to Kent Somers, board president, and John Miller, the district’s chief operations officer.
The email excerpts in Himsel's letter were from a follow-up Sept. 17 email in which the officer said he had hoped the district would "change how the meetings were run."
"After careful consideration, all NACS SRO’s (school resource officers) have decided that they will no longer work security at board meetings as long as the current format and atmosphere you have been allowing continues," the unnamed officer wrote in the email, according to Himsel's letter.
The officer also said the officers would reconsider assisting the board in "providing a safe and productive meeting environment."
During his radio interview Thursday, Hershberger referenced a meeting with school officials which he was not a part of, but he said the district was told "that it wasn’t our place to tell the board how to conduct the meeting."
The school board decided to review its meeting procedure after the email exchange, Himsel's letter said. The board voted 3-2 during a virtual meeting Wednesday to continue a mask mandate through the end of the semester.
Lizette Downey, NACS spokeswoman, said Saturday the district is not refuting the fact that the sheriff’s department did not specifically direct the district on how to change the way they conduct meetings.
"While it may not be their job to explain or to tell us exactly what will work or won’t work," she said, "we are trying to work with them to say, ‘What do you need? You’re the expert in public safety.' "
In the Sept. 17 email, the officer said the department and officers are not trying to choose a side of the COVID-19-related debates at the meeting.
"We don’t care what the topic of discussion may be," the officer said in the email. "We only care that the meetings are held in a safe manner."
Hershberger could not be reached for comment by The Journal Gazette Saturday afternoon.
"At this point, we want to work with NACS, we want to work with the public, we want people to be able to express their concerns and their opinions," he said in Thursday's WOWO interview. "At the end of the day, we want everyone to do it peacefully and with order."
Himsel’s letter sent to parents also shared information about social emotional learning, which is another topic the superintendent said his office has received questions about. Himsel directed educators to refrain from using the phrase "in light of the barrage of criticism leveled at the term."
Instead, he asked them to describe the actual curricular goals and instructional activities and to continue to support students.
"We believe parents better understand curricular goals and instructional activities," Himsel wrote, "when we avoid the use of professional jargon."