Superintendent Talks About Student Security and the Florida Tragedy
Our country is, once again, mourning a terrible school shooting. It is our worst nightmare.
We all feel helpless, frustrated, without answers, and angry. We are thinking about our own kids, and our neighbors’ kids, and the fact that across the world, they are ALL our kids.
We are all watching newscasts and reading articles showing people at all different levels of involvement pointing fingers all over the place. It is chaos with no clear answer.
At a national conference for school administrators this week, I was able to mourn and ponder with people in charge of schools from across the United States. The speaker in the room, a school resource officer (SRO) from Illinois, started the emergency response training by saying, “Let’s get the elephant out of the room right now. What are you guys dealing with in regard to this tragedy?”
Men and women throughout the room talked about how we are trying to answer to our parents and families who are asking, “What are you doing?” “How are you going to guarantee my child’s safety?” Superintendents were grappling with many concepts: arm teachers, allow concealed weapons, install metal detectors, create gun control measures, more school resource officers (if you even have one). Some kids who were “different” were being singled out as the next possible shooter. What about response time? One superintendent said he had legal authorization for himself and a few others to be armed. His police response time in rural America was over 20 minutes.
The question was raised to the school administrators: “What are you going to do when you get home.” And then the training went on as planned. You could tell in the room that the emergency response measures of “lockdown drills,” “tabletop exercises,” and “active shooter plans” were something that we had all focused on heavily for most of our careers, since the world changed in 1999: Columbine. The training itself was nothing new to any of us. We were all trained and retrained on emergency response, each of us owning a library of think notebooks on ever-evolving drills and procedures.
In Prescott Unified School District (PUSD), our hard working principals and their staffs review their emergency response plans at the beginning of each year, and then drill and practice throughout the year. Each of our administrators plus additional key staff are also FEMA Emergency Management Institute-trained in a variety of emergency response scenarios. The school leaders are vigilant, and some, I would say, are near experts. Even in little Prescott, we have stories of lockdowns over rumored guns, bank robberies downtown, and more. One thing that stuck with me from the aforementioned conference discussion on school safety was that our students, these days, according to the SRO from Illinois, “are more prepared and less scared than adults think. They’ve been doing it their whole lives.” I agree. This said, we will consider more aggressive and realistic drilling.
Effective school safety is a top-down commitment. It is a non-negotiable requirement in all the schools that I have been around, with strong systems of accountability in place. Interagency cooperation is key, and certainly in Prescott’s case, our tight relationships with police, sheriff, and fire departments are alive and well. We now have technology to communicate quickly to a widespread audience of parents. Our principals are great communicators, and they have thought out plans to communicate with parents in emergency situations, as soon as it is safe to do so.
Still, emergency response is just that, a response. It is a reaction to action. What about the preventative part of all of this? Cultures of “see something, say something” are key, and something that our schools work hard to do. This is achieved with relationships: knowing our students. AdvancEd accreditation, just last week said to us that we truly live our motto “Every Child, Every Day.” We know our students. This is a start. We have silent witness programs line the “Badger Tip Line” alive and well at Granite Mountain, Mile High, and Prescott High School. In our elementary schools, where classrooms are mostly self contained, the close student relationships with one primary teacher is effective.
But in Prescott, as across the country, we have seen a sharp and quick rise in our students’ need for social, emotional, and mental health support. We now train our teachers in what we call trauma-informed instruction, because students across the country come to us with a background of trauma that we need to understand as we work to help them learn. Schools across the country are groping for more professional help with students that have emotional and mental problems. In PUSD, we share a full-time social worker between the three elementary schools and Granite Mountain School, as well as a full-time licensed clinical and therapeutic counselor at those levels. We currently have part-time grant-funded staff in place to help us with this at Mile High Middle School and Prescott High, although those grants are ending after just one year. Our five academic advisors at the middle and high school levels are trained for supporting students’ academic needs, not therapeutic. But, often called counselors, they spend much of their time trying to help in these areas for which they have very little training. They have caseloads of well over 400:1. Our special education psychologists and behavior specialists are dedicated per federal mandate to focus only on students identified as qualified for special education. But do they have to step out of that role and help in crisis situations? You bet they do. We stretch them thin with this, and they never complain. But that is not a great solution either.
If you missed my cry for help in the above paragraph, talk to one of our principals. This is one of the most talked about issues in our PUSD District Leadership Team meetings. In fact, the agenda for the meeting scheduled the day before the Florida shooting included an item to discuss creative ways to fund for social-emotional support district wide. We will talk about it tomorrow with obvious new urgency. We will likely cut in other areas to support this high priority (don’t worry, we have extensive experience in cutting and prioritizing). We will make it happen. We will band-aid it, and I promise, it will be a solid band-aid. (Band-aids also cause class size to go up, salaries to go down, and programs offered at a lower rate.)
Many educators, myself included, believe one of the most logical and effective solutions are school resource officers. There is great experience and research on how to use these officers in a proactive and relationship-based way. Central to this is that they know the school, know the kids, and they have a finger on the pulse of “what is going on” all the time. When I started in PUSD 15 years ago, the City of Prescott staffed three full-time police officers, SROs, in our two middle schools and at Prescott High. For the last several years, that was cut down to just one at PHS. This year, it went to zero, due to a pension problem in Arizona that I won’t get into here (feel free to Google PSPRS). As always, our Prescott Police partners worked very closely with us trying to help in every way they could. You may have read about this in local papers last fall. Once again, our amazing community stepped up. An anonymous donor, along with the James Family Foundation and the Margaret T. Morris Foundation, donated a total of $55,000. This allowed us to be creative with the police department to pay officers overtime shifts to fill in at PHS during peak hours. While grateful for this creative solution, the police department and school district all agree that we need the full time SRO, who is focused on being a part of the school, working as a member of the administration team, and building relationships with the kids. PUSD is working with the City to possibly split the cost of the SRO, while we both work hard to receive grants to offset the split. We will see this through. However, one of the most obvious things we can do to fight this crisis is to have more of this SRO presence. Let’s focus on that from a political standpoint.
Here is a fact that has somewhat slipped away: In our failed 2013 attempt at an override, we included an SRO salary. It was touted by some as “fluff,” so it was taken out for the successful 2015 override.
Another issue is the physical layout of our schools built before anyone ever dreamed we would have tragedies like these shootings in schools. In Prescott, some of our schools never had parking lots, because kids got to school on foot or horseback when they were built! Add to this the fact that since the recession, Arizona has frozen over 8 million dollars in the capital school funding formula for Prescott alone. Although we have done some physical remodeling to create safe entries at our schools, ideal setups are costly and money is not there. I will quote my colleague Dan Streeter, Humboldt Superintendent, from his recent column regarding this topic: Our challenges continue to be reduced funding for capital expenditures that could enhance safety and inadequate operations budgets that limit access to critical supports such as social workers and mental health professionals within our schools. Research demonstrates that learning is enhanced when children feel safe and have their physical and emotional needs met in a healthy school environment. This includes access to healthy foods, opportunities for physical activity, and access to preventive care and health services, including mental health. These are issues that we must face as a community and work together to solve. Schools play a critical role in helping students feel safe and supported, and in providing students more intensive services and supports as necessary.
Almost like guerrilla warfare, we are fighting an invisible enemy here. All you have to do is watch the news today to see that no one has a clear answer. We will continue to work on expanding our options with mental, social, and emotional help support for our kids, while reinstating a school resource officer. We can never say, “This will never happen in our community.” We have to work together as schools, parents, and community members to do everything possible to not let it happen in our community. We look forward to our continued work together with each of you to make our community the safest place possible for our kids.