The lecture hall at Johnson County Community College was silent as the surveillance video began to play, but there were audible gasps as attendees watched Kelsey Smith being kidnapped in broad daylight nearly 12 years ago in a Target parking lot near Oak Park Mall. The Overland Park teen had graduated from Shawnee Mission West just nine days before her abduction June 2, 2007.
Those few seconds of opportunity her abductor exploited were exactly what Greg Smith, Kelsey’s father, wanted to explain in a safety training session for Johnson County Community College on Monday. The Smith family now leads Kelsey’s Army, a nonprofit organization that provides safety training sessions, among other initiatives.
With years of experience in law enforcement, Smith sees each training session as an opportunity to teach others constant vigilance, awareness of surroundings and other preventative measures in order to avoid becoming a victim of opportunity. A former Shawnee Mission school teacher and state senator, Smith now serves as a special deputy and government liaison for the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office.
“The mission statement of the Kelsey Smith Foundation is to commemorate Kelsey’s life; it is important that she be remembered and not her killer,” Smith said. “Her story resonates with people. She is saving lives. It is important to me as her dad that she is remembered. As a deputy sheriff, I want to protect people. Kelsey’s story is doing that.”
‘be more observant of your environment’
Smith said he hopes these training tips stick with session participants:
- Be aware of your surroundings. Trust your gut. If you see something that isn’t right, tell someone.
- Let people know where you are going and when you change locations. “Kelsey was excellent at doing this,” he added. “Because of that, we knew after about 15 minutes that something (was) wrong.”
- Make eye contact with others in your environment — it humanizes you.
- Walk in pairs; you’re less likely to become a victim.
- Be aware that using your cellphone distracts you from your surroundings.
Gregory Russell, police chief of the Johnson County Community College Police Department, said he hopes students, faculty and staff can be more aware of their surroundings — which is his number one takeaway from Kelsey’s Army training.
“What happened to Kelsey was a tragedy, but if we can get this message out to be more observant of your environment, I think that may be the main message that I would like to send out to our students, our campus community,” Russell said. “I think, too often, as you see with our technology today, you see folks with their head buried in their phones, not paying any attention of what’s around them, or who may be approaching them.”
Chris Gray, public information officer for Johnson County Community College, said providing Kelsey’s Army training sessions to students and staff is part of the college’s ongoing efforts to keep the campus safe. This is the first time the college has hosted Kelsey’s Army training.
“In this day and age, you can never train too much,” Gray said. “We feel it’s important to provide to our students and to our faculty and staff just to hear (Smith’s training) so we can be as diligent as we can, from a safety standpoint.”