School districts eye responses to crises

Early in the morning of Feb. 15, Central Point School District Superintendent Samantha Steele sent her entire staff an email from a hotel room in Nashville, Tennessee, where she was attending a national superintendents conference.

She had seen the CNN coverage on airport monitors when she landed the previous evening about the gunman who had killed 17 people at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Now, she wanted to send the staff, still asleep three hours behind in Oregon, a message they could wake up to.

"I know you’ll comfort and reassure our kids, but I hope you’ll also take care of yourselves," she wrote as the final line. "There is truly no more important work than the work you do each day."

She signed it, "Sam." It was 6:30 a.m. 

Thousands of teachers and staff across the Rogue Valley returned to their school buildings the morning after the shooting, and parents dropped their students off. For many of them, that action came with questions echoing in their heads — about their own safety, their school's preparedness and what prevention measures exist.

School districts are tasked with making sure those questions have answers.

Acronyms prevail in education systems, and the name of the increasingly popular safety training among local districts is no exception. Natalie Hurd, communications specialist for the Medford School District, said the training being delivered to its staff in the last few years is called ALICE — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evaluate.

The method is used by 3,700 K-12 districts, including Central Point.

Schools are not only concerned with active-shooter processes, but also work to mitigate crises before they arise. Hurd said Medford has also focused on increasing access to mental health resources for students. Boosting school safety, she said, extends beyond the school resource officers, who are police based at Medford's high schools but are responsive to all schools in the district. The district also hired four new counselors with Measure 98 funds, whose primary function is to support students psychologically and emotionally.

In Central Point, mental health employees with La Clinica are on site at Crater High School, Hanby Middle School and Jewett and Central Point Elementary schools, but also respond to students at all schools.

In the immediate aftermath of tragedies such as the Parkland mass shooting, schools provide space for students to process through grief, something Steele and Hurd said can look different in every situation, depending on the age of students and the relationships they have with teachers and staff.

"We’re walking a fine line of, do you create the space to talk about it in class or do you go on with the lesson as planned?" Hurd said.

Whether in prevention or emergency response, Hurd said, communication between all parties — students, staff and parents — is a critical function. Parents can play an important role in determining whether their student gets help if they need it, and just like those inside school walls, they benefit from knowing how their district responds to crises.

Hurd said parents should check with their school's main offices to ensure their contact information on file is up to date. She also recommended signing up with a Mass Messenger form to receive text alerts, which are a more consistently reliable communication medium in an emergency.

Eagle Point School District also has a signup for text alerts, which can be found at http://bit.ly/2GszIQs.

"You just don’t know how things are going to go down, but we try to plan for those scenarios," Hurd said. "We want families to know, to use our resources."

— Reach Mail Tribune reporter Kaylee Tornay at 541-776-4497 or ktornay@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ka_tornay.

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