District 622 looking for school safety funding

National attention to school security issues has brought limelight on the topic at the local level with School District 622 developing its first "guided forum" for residents, staff and School Board members to discuss any concerns they have.

Prior to the Oct. 24 forum visitors were asked the question: "What can our community and district do to improve security for our students?"

The event was attended by some School Board members, residents, members of law enforcement and staff from private schools as well. Superintendent Patty Phillips and Gene Janicke, director of teaching and learning for the school district, were also in attendance.

"We look very seriously at school safety. I think that is the No. 1 issue for parents and for us," Janicke said.

Initial discussion centered around basic school safety precautions such as cameras on buses, in the buildings and parking lots and the need for metal detectors.

Cameras are currently in place in middle and high schools, Phillips said, with efforts in the works to have the devices in all district facilities.

Scott Duddeck, the North St. Paul fire chief and community services manager, questioned the need for metal detectors in the district.

In response, Maplewood Deputy Police Chief John Banick said the cost of purchasing and staffing metal detectors and the time it would take students to get into school would be factors to consider.

"I guess I'm a little concerned about the look of that in our community," Banick said.

An overall suggestion for the district to consider in coming years would be hiring a full-time crisis management staff person to facilitate communication between schools and law enforcement, Banick added. "Because of the uniqueness of the school district covering three cities and two counties, we have many issues," he said.

It was mentioned at a previous School Board meeting that a crisis management officer has been hired in School District 833, covering south Washington County.

In August, Scott Brownell started work as the District 833 crisis management officer, said Randy Zipf, the assistant superintendent for secondary schools. Responsibilities for Brownell are across the board from weather emergencies and drills, safety training for district staff, building security procedures, to determining whether a situation is a threat.

"Whenever we do have a crisis that person is our point of contact," Zipf said. He added that having one person in that role ties together responsibilities that had previously been assigned to many different staff in the district.

When they were in the process of hiring Brownell, Zipf said the district found that not many others in the state have a crisis management officer.

If District 622 were to hire someone in crisis management Zipf said it would allow communication between the two areas, if needed. "I think in some ways it may bring the same type of benefit we're seeing here," he said.

Cooperative efforts

A crisis management officer could also help cooperation between public and non-public schools, Banick said.

With lockdown drills to prepare for a school shooter, hostage incident or other disturbance now required in public and non-public schools, working together and sharing information may be needed.

The law requires at least five lockdown drills, at least five fire drills and one tornado drill per year.

Mark Dobberstein, the principal at Christ Lutheran School in North St. Paul attended the Oct. 24 forum to determine how public and non-public schools can work together with the new law. "You kind of get on an island and you don't want to be out there," he said.

His school has not gone through any lockdown drills this year, Dobberstein said. "We haven't practiced ours yet but we'll get there," he said. Since other schools in the area have done some drills, Dobberstein said he thought they could cooperate and share information about the process involved. "I'd like to see more of a relationship that way," he said.

Other cooperative efforts have been between the school district and law enforcement. On Oct. 25 school principals met with the police chiefs from Oakdale, North St. Paul and Maplewood.

Also, working with police liaison officers who serve the schools throughout the district is another effort that allows for students and staff to have someone to share their immediate concerns with, Janicke said. "Students will share (information) that they know needs to be shared if resources (are) easily available."

Planning at every level

Lockdown drills are not new for every school in the district, but for elementary schools starting the efforts this year, taking it slow is important, said Carol Erickson, principal at Skyview Community Elementary. "We're all learning. This is the focus for our year to figure it out," she said.

Prior to the implementation of the state law, Erickson said her staff had been trained as part of the district's crisis plan in lockdown procedures.

Since the law went into effect, Skyview has had one drill, she said.

With younger students, kindergarten through fifth grade, Erickson said some could become anxious or scared during the drills, especially given the reasoning behind why they are required now.

"My message to the teachers was to make sure we were presenting the information to our students in a developmentally appropriate manner," she said.

During the one drill held this year students did go into rooms and lock the doors, but teachers continued with their lessons to ease any anxiety that may have occurred.

Keeping in mind the variety of levels of child development present at the school Erickson said staff compared the need to lock the doors to classrooms to what they may do at their home to be safe.

As the year goes on the school will assess how advanced the drills will be, as far has having students be in rooms with the lights off and remain quiet, which is currently the procedure at the high schools. "I want everyone to feel safe at school," Erickson said. "I don't want us to feel anxiety that would lead to further aggression in our schools."

District officials and law enforcement have had to address one incident at elementary schools this year involving a fifth grader at Richardson Elementary in North St. Paul who showed classmates a pistol on the school bus the morning of Oct. 9. North St. Paul police were called to the school later that morning after other students told adults that they had seen the weapon. Police found a 25-caliber semiautomatic pistol in the student's backpack, though it was not loaded. The student was removed from school and turned over to juvenile authorities. He reportedly found the gun at a relative's house.

In response to the incident, Superintendent Phillips said letters were sent to parents of students at the school and the need for reporting suspicious matters to adults was discussed. She would not comment further due to the ongoing investigation of the incident.

While the school district has a no-tolerance weapons policy, Janicke said access to guns in this country needs to be addressed in addition to drills and practicing for emergencies.

"All these incidents prove to us that no matter how good your plans are, if kids have easy access to guns, there is not a method to prevent them from bringing them (to school)," he said.

Continuing the process

In an interview after the guided forum on school safety, Phillips said the district will be putting together the information that was discussed and also will be revising its crisis plans and other policies to fully reflect the new lockdown drill law.

Also, securing funding has a big influence on the districts continued ability to address school safety.

In cooperation with the three police departments Phillips said the district would work on writing a grant proposal to obtain funding. "It's a grassroots effort between schools and law enforcement to find out what we would want to fund," she said.

Keeping the message out there that schools are still safe places to go is also important in the district, while stressing the need for emergency planning.

"One of the things I heard on news is school is one of the safest place to be," Erickson said. "And I think that should be our message."

Katy Zillmer can be reached at kzillmer@lillienews.com or at 651-748-7822.

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