Slade McSheehy said that when he was appointed to the position of superintendent of the Vashon Island School District last year, he was tasked with making safety one of the district’s top priorities.
That meant continuing much of the work already being done, from complying with state-mandated drills and safety-related governmental regulations, to facilitating partnerships with agencies such as the King County Sheriff’s Office and Vashon Island Fire & Rescue.
Now, at the start of a new school year, McSheehy said he is confident that his staff is as prepared as ever for any emergencies that may arise. But he said there is no certainty in knowing whether the district will be ready for the unthinkable until it happens.
“Every district’s approach to physical safety is unique. There isn’t any one-size-fits-all. Sometimes that’s unsettling to people because they think there’s a best practice out there, ‘If you just do this, then kids will be safe.’ And that doesn’t exist,” he said.
In his September message to families, McSheehy wrote that keeping students safe includes everything from managing bus routes to implementing a specialized curriculum to promote social-emotional wellbeing. Two student safety nights will be held later in the fall and spring. Interested parents and community members are invited to join a new safety committee — their meetings will be attended by Fire Chief Charlie Krimmert and Major Jesse Anderson of the sheriff’s office throughout the year. What’s more, Chautauqua Elementary School assistant principal Jon Hodgeson will receive training later this year in best practices for tabletop safety drills for faculty.
McSheehy said the goal is for staff to be able to exercise common sense and use their better judgment in the event of an emergency, calling it “situational awareness.” He added that while there are differing opinions about what it takes to keep students safe, he believes it is important that everyone feels heard in the planning process, with the outcome being a system in place that is designed to best protect island students.
“In terms of the biggest risks, we have been doing a great job with that year to year,” he said.
Some of the dangers the district rehearses for can range, from power outages to fire and earthquakes, and the district prepares for those as needed.
But McSheehy singled out one scenario from the others.
“Sincerely, it’s just the active shooter. It started with Columbine but it has not slowed down. And I guess that’s the point, it hasn’t slowed down,” he said.
McSheehy said that as superintendent, he focuses on making sure good decisions get made, while not necessarily making those decisions himself. Listening is key, he said, whether there are calls from community members for the district to perform more drills or to consider ideas such as equipping the school buildings with extra security.
But there is scant research proving those methods work, he said. Experts are divided as to whether drills for mass shooting scenarios traumatize young students more than they help them, as The National Association of School Psychologists suggests. Moreover, a study published last March found that efforts to secure school buildings only resulted in creating a false sense of security and are potentially ineffective at curtailing violence, according to the authors.
“There is no one drill, there is no one answer to the problem of really any of these high risk, active shooter scenarios,” said McSheehy, emphasizing that staff members are the district’s best defense.
“If they hear shots fired, they’re going to take the necessary steps to make sure their kids are safe to the best that they possibly can,” he said.
In past years, some in the community have expressed concern that the design of the new high school, with large windows and airy, open spaces, may pose its own risks to safety in the event of a shooting scenario. Danny Rock, principal of Vashon High School, noted that in the annual Washington State Healthy Youth Survey, the majority of students regularly report that they feel safe at school and safe with their peers.
“What we think is the best preparation for this sort of horrible and statistically incredibly unlikely event is to have our staff and students prepared to make the best and safest decisions available to them,” he said. “We do not want our students living in a prison environment so they can be prepared against some horrible possible event.”
Rock said island students care about the experiences their peers have in the schools. They hold each other accountable and are often the first reporters when something is wrong, which lends itself to the district’s racial equity goals, he said, creating a welcoming, safe space for all.
To that end, Rock said, all three schools have continued to implement circles, or mentor-led discussion groups, each year to create relationships, dialogue and transparency among students and staff.
Additionally, said Rock, the high school is pushing to foster the social-emotional wellness of its students in another way. The district will expand an ongoing partnership with Axiom Equine, an island organization founded by Melissa Rampe and Kate Shook that provides structured activities with horses for what Rock said develops resilience to adversity, increases self-awareness and teaches how to regulate emotions. It has been so well-received in the past among smaller groups who reported positive experiences in the program that it will be offered to the entire incoming freshman class next spring, courtesy of a $300,000 grant from the island-based Minnie Perkins Foundation.
“It’s going to provide a very nice thread that connects every student in the school and every freshman together that will share this experience,” Rock said.
The idea is that students who are invested in the experience of their personal growth and learning are less likely to cause trouble for themselves or for others, he said — and that can have a positive impact on school culture.
At McMurray Middle School, principal Greg Allison said he and his staff are using their resources to introduce new skills to students and give them the tools to have more control over their feelings. Doing so, he said, will lead to greater academic success and help students become independent, self-assured young people.
The district has provided lessons from a curriculum known as Second Step for several years, which includes grade-appropriate videos, lesson prompts and discussion items that vary from staying alert around strangers to living a healthy, balanced life.
Helping kids grow, Allison said, is empowering, leading to progress that can emanate from the classroom.
“We hope that by promoting this engagement in the schools that they are going to be able to translate that to wider issues in their lives,” he said.
Part of the work of Second Step is to teach kids how to engage with one another, as well, he added. That means confronting and resolving differences, improving communication and the ways students interact with one another, both in person and on social media, supporting efforts to prevent bullying.
“We really use the language school-wide so students are learning to manage their emotions; they learn to problem-solve, they’re learning empathy for other students’ feelings,” said Rebecca Goertzel, principal at Chautauqua Elementary School, where Second Step is also used.
Staff, she added, want their students to feel that they belong in their own local community — for most of them, that community begins at school. Goertzel said she wants all students to feel as though they have a voice and the power to make positive impacts together. She said that unity makes for stronger connections and safer schools.
“People think about school safety as better locks on the doors, but it starts with a system where students know where to report if they see something that worries them, where students learn to manage their own emotions and learn to self regulate and understand the feelings of others,” Goertzel said.