School district works to increase student safety

With school shootings frequently in the news, public school officials on Vashon say they are constantly working to increase safety in the schools and will take steps this summer to further boost their emergency preparations.

“We think about it every day,” said Michael Soltman, superintendent of the Vashon Island School District.

For years, schools have had to comply with several safety-related governmental regulations, but the district has gone beyond those, district officials say, and will work in the coming months on further safety planning, including coordinating with the King County Sheriff’s Office on reducing response times to the schools and evaluating the district’s security planning goals.

This summer administrators will also work with the district’s technology experts to ensure the district is using its technological capabilities to the fullest for emergency purposes.

When the school year resumes, administrators will continue training staff in the schools to act autonomously should the need arise. This step is vital, Soltman said, because in past episodes of violence, typically it has not been building security measures and safety plans that have made a difference, but individuals who took action. To that end, he said, district officials would like to equip every adult with information and training to act independently.

“It’s become clearer and clearer in an emergency, quick communication and people being practiced adults is key,” he said. “The best thing is to have people ready to act independently.”

After the most recent shootings — including one in the Portland area and one at Seattle Pacific University — a national conversation erupted about whether gun violence in schools had increased, or if there is simply more media attention on the incidents that happen. Regardless, schools must now work to prepare for and prevent such violence in ways they did not decades ago. In one such example, last year the state Legislature changed the requirements for drills schools must conduct every year, decreasing fire drills and increasing lockdown drills from one to three per year.

At Chautauqua Elementary School, Principal Jody Metzger said she initially was upset about that increase because she had disliked having even one such drill with young students. But, she said, over the course of the three drills, she came to appreciate their value. They are done in a calm manner, she said, and staff response times improved greatly from the first drill to the second. That type of practice is important in enabling each faculty or staff member to step into a leadership role if need be, she stressed.

“We want to make sure in an emergency, all (adults) are not sheep, but that they are leaders and provide thoughtful leadership,” she said. “People who are empowered to make decisions and practice usually make really good decisions.”

Since the Sandy Hook shooting in 2012, nearly 90 percent of schools have tightened their security, according to Campus Safety, a national trade magazine covering school security and safety issues.

Metzger noted that is true for Chautauqua, which increased the number of its locked doors following the incident.

The most striking safety improvements in the district, however, came with the new high school, which Principal Danny Rock says was designed with safety in mind and is much safer than the former sprawling campus, which had aging facilities, keys readily available and a PA system that did not reach all the buildings.

“In the old school, someone could have walked into a classroom, and we would not have even known about it,” he said. “It would have been difficult to respond quickly.”

Now, he said, it is possible in a lockdown situation for everyone to be in a contained place, not visible to anyone looking in, and every adult is able to secure students in any classroom.

Still, he said, school officials continue to evaluate how best to react in some situations, particularly when students are not in class.

“We are continuing to train and do drills so that we can respond well in the moment,” he said.

Noting the school has several open spaces, large windows and many doors — all of which enhance learning, but not security — Rock said he believes the costs of security must be considered and weighed.

“There is always a balance in my mind between the benefit you get with security measures versus the liability of living and operating in that secured environment,” he said.

A locked school does not appeal to him, he added.

“The slight increase in safety that we would gain would be outweighed by the cost of having to have students buzzed in,” he said.

At all the district’s schools, however, administrators say they are focused on prevention and supporting students who might be struggling with issues ranging from family conflict to substance abuse to depression.

At McMurray Middle School, principal Greg Allison said they try to determine how to support each student and work hard to prevent bullying.

“We want to make sure that we have a safe and inclusive environment,” Allison said. “The more we can create that, that is a feature of prevention.”

Rock concurred, saying he and many others at the high school pay close attention to those students who appear not to connect with others and try to step in with formal and informal support. Soltman noted that the district recently  increased its services to students who struggle, including expanding the StudentLink program.

The high school has an anonymous tip line, Rock added, and he frequently hears from students through it about other students they might be worried about. One student this year joked about bringing a gun to school, he noted, and intervention was immediate.

“We take it very seriously in this day and age,” he said.

Currently, Soltman said, the school district participates in a program called Rapid Responder, which is managed by the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs. First responders have access to a multitude of the schools’ information online through the program, ranging from floor plans of all the district’s schools to information on where to shut off the gas. Soltman noted it might be possible for the district to connect its cameras to the site and he will learn more about that and other possibilities this summer as district officials work with the schools’ technology experts. As part of that process, administrators will also consider how best to communicate with staff in an emergency, he said, including the possibility of relaying information via phones and computers.

“We will be a more powerful place if everyone can act on immediate information,” he said.

Vashon, with its small population, is only served by two sheriff’s deputies at a time, a situation Soltman said he takes seriously. Additional law enforcement assistance could be helicoptered over and land at designated places near the school, he said, but he wants to solidify those plans during the break.

Additional emergency medical care could also come from the mainland by boat or air, said George Brown, assistant chief at Vashon Island Fire & Rescue, though it would likely take, at best, 30 minutes to arrive.

Next year, Soltman noted, the district may undertake emergency exercises, such as a “table top” exercise, where several administrators and faculty plan for different scenarios, and may also run a full-fledged emergency drill.

Along with school planning and prevention strategies, he said he would also like to see a forum about guns and best safety practices regarding their use and storage, and he believes the district has a role to play in that discussion.

“I think the community has a duty to lock up its guns. I think we can be helpful in raising that awareness. Statistics clearly show that access to guns dramatically increases the odds of gun violence,” he said. “We can set the debate aside, but we can protect our kids by having the best locking systems on our guns.”

After the Sandy Hook shooting, Soltman — whose office is at Chautauqua — said he cried when he walked the halls of the elementary school in the days afterward.

“I felt so vulnerable,” he said. “How do you stop that kind of insanity?”

And then Soltman returned to the idea of prevention.

“I think in our community we do a nice job of paying attention to people who suffer. That is the best we can do — take care of each other and be mindful of each other,” he said. “And don’t let it happen here.”

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