Teach and Protect.JPG

Schools shore up defenses to keep students safe

Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series done in conjunction with KTVL Channel 10. See more tonight on KTVl's 6 p.m. broadcast.

The early spring mornings when Southern Oregon students left their classrooms were crisp and clear. The signs they carried cut sharp angles in the air and their breath formed clouds of mist as they called out.

“Keep us safe! Keep us safe!”

After the marches and demonstrations, Medford parents and community members met in the Central Medford High School auditorium to grapple with their fears after yet another mass school shooting, this time in Parkland, Fla.

Schools are places for teachers to teach and students to learn — but over the last few decades and increasingly in recent months, many are ramping up their defenses to also protect.

“I think what I’ve seen with our leadership group that we have right now is that we’re more proactive about safety than I’ve seen us be in the past,” said Amy Tiger, athletic director and safety coordinator for the Medford School District, who’s in her 31st year as a district employee.

While mass shootings at schools are extremely rare, they instantly grab headlines and in turn plant questions about safety into many students’ and parents’ minds. Teachers, school counselors, administrators and their families deal with the same uncertainty.

Administrators say protecting schools requires a dual mindset, to both prevent danger and to respond to it when it reaches school grounds.

Often, those efforts fall into one of three categories: building and infrastructure; mental health and student support services; and fostering a culture of connectivity.

Built-in safety measures

Security is built into the walls that enclose students in classrooms, in the locks on interior and exterior doors and the cameras that keep watch over school grounds.

These are areas where the Medford School District and others have allocated resources in recent months.

Based on community feedback, Medford has limited its entry points into schools. Superintendent Brian Shumate emailed parents and staff a few weeks before the start of the school year about changes to building protocol. Cameras, doorbell-style buzzers and microphones now allow office staff to see and speak with people seeking entry into any of the district’s schools.

“While our business is educating all students, our number one priority is keeping them safe,” Shumate wrote.

Upgraded fencing at some schools also helps direct people toward the front doors, Tiger said.

“A fence is not going to stop everyone from coming through,” she said, “but it does define your space as a school.”

Tiger’s responsibilities in her dual role can include meeting with bus and transportation staff, discussing emergency response plans with school resource officers and making appearances at almost every athletic event in the district.

In Ashland, an open layout with multiple entry and exit points into the heart of campus all but rules out the single point of entry strategy.

Built in the mid-20th century, it was designed to resemble a college campus, said Jordan Ely, Ashland School District’s director of business services.

Though it’s not in his title, Ely has been helping oversee the district’s efforts to improve security in recent months.

“(The campus) is open, because when this school was built, this isn’t something we were thinking about,” Ely said, walking through the courtyard of Ashland High School in the afternoon sun during the second week of school. Students lingering after being released from class pass in and out of the space.

“We have had mixed reactions to the open campus. There are some students who say they feel safer being able to enter and exit the campus freely; there are others who maybe don’t feel as safe around campus.”

Ely said the district consulted with an infrastructure expert from the Department of Homeland Security to identify potential vulnerabilities and remains largely in a conversational phase of planning for how to shore up campuses.

As school districts look to build new facilities, safety is wrapped into the plans. Ashland is considering a bond that would address safety. Eagle Point School District’s $95 million bond measure in the November election includes a keyless lock system that enables instant lockdown of all exterior and interior doors. New cameras also would be satellite-connected so first responders can see what’s happening on campuses on their way to an emergency.

“We just have more tools at our disposal,” said Allen Barber, Eagle Point’s human resources director. “If we can get that for our students’ safety, we think that’s important to do.”

‘An adult they can trust’

Many times when authorities retrace the steps of mass school shooters, similar patterns emerge of traumatic life circumstances, untreated mental health problems and a building storm of troubling behavior.

School districts are boosting access to mental health resources, while simultaneously equipping employees from custodians to teachers to care for students’ trauma throughout the school day.

In the Medford School District, all teachers are now trained in Trauma-Informed Practices, which include caring for children who have adverse childhood experiences. Understanding how children’s difficult life circumstances play out in their behavior can help steer them toward the right support services, including those focused on mental health.

“We’re working very intentionally on positive cultures,” Michelle Cummings, chief academic officer, told attendees at a March 15 Parent Academy on safety. It was a month after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. “When we talk about school safety, we really think holistically about what that means.”

Jill Jeter became Medford’s crisis prevention specialist in 2017, supporting the district’s growing number of mental health counselors. She responds to the calls of principals and counselors during and before crises.

The district funded an additional 10 positions in psychological services in this year’s budget.

But even those resources are stretched, officials said.

“We could probably use two of her — or three,” Tiger said of Jeter.

Ashland has not expanded its mental health services directly, opting instead to hire more academic counselors.

“Because (academic counselors) are able to better know their students, they are also more able to be proactive in supporting students in accessing metal health resources when needed,” said Ashland High School Principal Erika Bare.

Eagle Point increased its number of mental health counselors this year. Barber said the district has more counselors at its student health centers than it has ever had.

"All about relationships'

Medford police Officer Ian McDonald cuts a tall figure among the students flocking through the halls of Hedrick Middle School. He greets them by name and offers candy from his office.

“I joked with people in the past that if I was to get an on-the-job injury as an SRO, it would be a shoulder injury from high-fiving kids in the hallway all day long,” he said.

McDonald has been a fixture at Hedrick since 2014; he’s one of four school resource officers in Medford.

These specialty-assignment officers’ duties are varied. In one day, they can play the role of counselor, teacher and cop.

One obstacle to hiring SROs is often budgeting, as is the case with Ashland School District. The district has no school resource officers yet, but is in talks with the city to establish a program.

“We don’t have dedicated support on the campus right now,” Ely said. “That is not because of a lack of effort on the police department’s part or on ours. We are trying to find a way to make that happen. It goes back to the resources.”

Editor's note: This is a joint project with KTVL Channel 10. See more on KTVL's 6 p.m. broadcast.

Medford’s school board on Sep. 10 approved a $220,000 intergovernmental agreement with the city that provides for a fifth SRO.

Even as SROs try to form relationships with students, they are also reliant on peer-to-peer relationships among students, not only in person but online. McDonald presents frequently about internet and digital safety in classes.

“This is such a wired generation,” he said. “I tell people, you know, find one of these kids and tell them to give up their cellphone — you’d be asking them to cut off their own arm.”

That constant connectivity, however, also can serve as a tool for officials like McDonald to catch wind of concerning behaviors before they explode.

“There’s been an instance where we got called out and it’s one o’clock in the morning and we’re going around town trying to track down a kid who was posting threats online,” he said. “The kids find out about it long before we do.”

To encourage reporting, districts have expanded their enrollments with the Oregon State Police’s anonymous tipline called SafeOregon.

Those working closest to students in protecting their safety typically encourage people inside and outside of school walls to take ownership of their contributions to protect students.

“Really, safety’s about all of us,” Tiger said. “It takes every single person in the district to make us safe, whether that be from the staff, the students, the parents. All of us have to speak up about things and create a culture of safety.”

Read part 2 here.

Read more on the ALICE protocol here.

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

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