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A view of the Oregon Capitol in Salem. AP PHOTO.

Local students tell legislators they're worried about their safety

Local high school students have some thoughts about their education. In sit-down listening sessions with state legislators Tuesday morning, a few dozen got to share them.

Students from Medford, Eagle Point, Ashland and Phoenix-Talent school districts were dispersed at nine tables in the Medford School District boardroom by 9 a.m. A few minutes later, legislators from across the state, members of the Joint Interim Committee on Student Success, took the remaining empty seats.

In that space, the commonality of their classroom and community experience whisked away school rivalries. Heads nodded in agreement throughout the room as students from varying experiences and interests listened to each other.

Among the many topics they raised, safety in schools was brought up quickly and frequently.

“As a student, I don’t feel safe in my school anymore, when I know all of these things are going on,” Monique Ortega, who attends North Medford High School, told state Sen. Kathleen Taylor, D-Milwaukie.

Taylor mentioned the ALICE emergency response strategy being implemented in schools locally as well as nationwide. The acronym stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate. Medford School District, for example, has been training increasing numbers of staff across all schools under the supervision of Amy Tiger, athletic director and safety coordinator.

Taylor told Ortega and the other students at the table that they weren’t the first to bring up safety concerns during the committee’s statewide tour.

The committee began its multi-stop tour in Eugene and had visited four other towns before coming to Medford Tuesday. Each stop has included school tours, communitywide public hearings and listening sessions like this one with students.

The bipartisan committee is researching success stories in Oregon schools in order to develop recommendations for ways to close gaps that are limiting student success in other schools.

While in the Rogue Valley Tuesday, the committee stopped by Kids Unlimited Academy, Eagle Point High School and Kid Time Preschool Promise, among other schools.

Rep. Barbara Smith Warner, D-Portland, co-chairs the committee. The education trips were inspired, she said, by a 2016 summer tour of cities taken by the Joint Committee on Transportation Preservation and Modernization.

“It continues to be some of the most valuable listening that we do,” she said, calling the tour an opportunity to “hear what are people’s priorities for education.”

The committee’s end-of-year report will help inform budget decisions in 2019, she said.

Though most students in the room were interested in talking about school safety, they didn’t agree on everything — not all of them reacted the same way to a possible threat at school.

Several students at one table said worrying about potential threats was a growing distraction during their time at school. But another tablemate, from Central Medford, disagreed.

“I do feel unsafe at some points, but that’s everybody,” he said. He regularly checks for exits and where he could hide when he goes into rooms, he said, but that doesn’t necessarily bother him.

The school safety discussion helped steer the conversation into other areas that some students saw as interrelated. Several tables discussed the availability and awareness of mental health resources such as counselors at their schools.

Maggie Hutto said she didn’t know when South Medford High School added another counselor to its staff during this school year. She suggested more awareness campaigns so students understand what’s available to them.

Not all of the discussion focused on shortcomings, however. Medford students in particular highlighted what they saw as the value of Pathways classes, which are more tailored to students’ individual interests. State Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, heard from a table of students about how important they feel it is to fund extracurricular activities that make students feel connected to a community.

Ortega said she walked away from the event feeling like she and her peers had been heard.

“It was really nice to feel supported. ... I also thought that a lot of the legislators that we met with really cared,” she said.

On Tuesday evening, the committee members met with Medford community members at a public hearing in the Central Medford High gym. On Wednesday, they will head to Grants Pass to meet with more students and tour New Bridge High School at the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility.

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

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