February school board meeting dominated by discussion on school safety

By Melanie Williamson

At the Tuesday, February 20, school board meeting VHS principal Lisa Deliz addressed those in attendance regarding school safety and recent discussions regarding safety on social media. There were a small handful of parents in the audience that were there to ask questions about rumors regarding threats in the schools.

Deliz shared that it is the district’s position to be ask proactive as possible instead of reactive, which includes having six counselors throughout the district, which is more than most area districts. She asserted that having more counselors means a smaller case load for each counselor and provides them with a greater opportunity to build relationships with students and to help more directly when needed. Deliz also shared that much of the information they receive from students comes through the counselors, which has been extremely beneficial.

Deliz stated that the district also actively participates with Sandy Hook Promise and Actively Caring, which are national programs designed to address issues of bullying and violence in schools. They also actively promote the “see something, say something” approach, which encourages students to report things they see and hear that are troubling. She explained that many students are hesitant to report other students out of a concern they will get others in trouble, and that mindset needs to be broken.

The district also has nurses in all three buildings, as well as Firelands Counseling, and LACADA Way at the high school. The district has a dedicated school resource officer (SRO), Officer Brian Beckwith, who is in the schools on a daily basis talking to students, investigating reported threats, and working with students.

Officer Beckwith, who was also in attendance, addressed the meeting sharing that in the previous week, they had received multiple threats that were student reported and every single report was investigated, families were contacted, and the situations were addressed both with the schools and the police department. Beckwith went on to explain that every threat is treated as real and fully investigated. He stated that he does not make assumptions about the validity of the treat.

A member of the audience stated that she feels “it’s the same as Parkland, you’re waiting until kids are dead to take it seriously.” Beckwith responded that is not the case, and he reiterated that he takes every rumor and every statement seriously. He went on to say that as law enforcement, he has to handle each threat on a case-by-case basis. The parent pushed further asking, “When a student admits to making a threat, when do you arrest and prosecute?” Beckwith responded that if a student is found to have made a threat, it is handled through the police department and charges are made. After several more specific questions, Beckwith stated that legally he cannot discuss specific cases, but of the threats he had invested in the previous week, only one was found unsubstantiated; the other students were all charged.

Persisting, another member of the audience stated that she is tired of kids getting just a slap on the wrist, and she felt the school and police department should make an example out of them to stop other students from making threats. Principal Deliz responded that the district follows the school handbook, which is made available to all parents if they want a better understanding of the disciplinary process. She also stated that they cannot take action based on rumors; they have to deal with facts. Referring to social media, she stated that much of what was said recently on social media was rumors and not substantiated.

An audience member responded to Deliz saying that there should be zero tolerance; if a student makes a threat, they should be expelled. Deliz responded that if they believe a student is a potential danger, they are removed from the school until an investigation can be completed.

Beckwith reiterated what Deliz stated about social media and stated that a lot of what was being said was based on an unsubstantiated rumor. He went on to say that after every mass shooting in the country, threats start coming out, and that all the districts are dealing with this right now. Deliz urged parents to keep encouraging their kids to speak up. Beckwith added that he thanks every student that comes to talk to him even if what is reported turns out to be just a rumor.

Beckwith also shared that all of the teachers have gone through ALICE training, and that he hosts an annual ALICE training that is open to the public for any parents or community members that want to learn more about it. Deliz stated that there is debate regarding whether or not to do ALICE training directly with the students. Beckwith explained that the drills can scare students, and there is a fine line between training and preparing students and scaring them. For that reason, they conduct different levels of training based on the age of the students. He went on to say that all the schools do a variety of trainings with the students including evacuation drills.

Superintendent Phil Pempin expanded on the training provided to teachers and staff asserting that they act out a variety of scenerios with a mock shooter so staff will be as prepared as possible. He shared they have even fired a gun in the school during training, so that they will all know what gunfire sounds like within the building. Pempin stated that as a district they do far more than the minimum required trainings, but reminded everyone that no amount of training will be enough to guarantee results in those types of situations. It is impossible to know exactly how something will play out until it is happening.

One parent asked if they have alarms on all the doors in the event someone is coming in a door other than the front door. Pempin shared that currently doors are kept locked, and they have video cameras throughout the school. They do not have alarms on all the doors, but that is one of the upgrades they are currently working on. He went on to say that they are consistently evaluating what precautions they have in place to see where they can make improvements.

Board member Michael Stark spoke up and stated that every board member is also a parent, and they worry too. They worry about their own children and everyone else’s. He then stated, “We can put up fences around the schools and bars on all the windows, but we don’t want the children to feel they are in a prison either. That’s not a good learning environment.”

Another parent from the audience addressed superintendent Pempin stating that they should communicate better with parents. Possibly send out mass text messages or something when there is a threat. Pempin responded that they will work to communicate better, but also cautioned that for legal reasons they can only release so much information. Additionally, he shared that they are careful not to release information on things that are not substantiated because they feel that will cause a panic, opposed to informing. He stated that a letter was posted on the district website and through social media, and that a copy of that letter was being sent home to parents the next day.

Pempin added that when and what information to release is never an easy decision, but safety is very important to the district and he wants parents to understand that they do care and they are focused on that. He went on to say that he understands parents and students are scared. He stated that as a grandfather of school-age children and as a superintendent, it is terrifying sometimes. “It’s a horrible feeling that we can’t stop what is going on in the world.”

When asked again by a parent why the students, who make threats, are only getting a slap on the wrist, Pempin responded that was not the case. “We are not tolerating that. If we believe someone made a threat, there are consequences.” He stated again that legally he cannot provide specifics of incidents and disciplinary actions, but there are actions taken.

School board president Chris Habermehl stated, “There is no black and white. We have to investigate on a case-by-case basis. There have been 18 incidents of guns in schools this year in the country and that leaves everyone feeling uneasy.” He went on to that going on Facebook to get information is not the answer. “Things grow [on social media] and get ugly based on things that aren’t true.” He urged parents that if they hear something concerning to call. He said all parents are welcome to call the board office and someone will talk to them. He thanked the parents that were at the meeting and encouraged them to come back and bring others. Habermehl urged, “Let’s keep talking about it…come to the meetings. We can talk about this every time.” Referring to comments made on social media, Beckwith stated, “I see stuff on social media about threats made when no one ever called me about it…If I don’t know; I can’t investigate it.”

Sailorway principal Beth Bartlome referred back to what Deliz stated at the start of the discussion regarding building relationships with students to prevent violent situations and being proactive instead of reactive. She shared, “the best thing we can do is care for everyone’s kids…get them involved, so they don’t feel lonely or depressed and start having unhealthy thoughts.” She went on to encourage parents and community members to volunteer and get active in the schools and in the lives of students. She stated, “there are students in our district that don’t have meaningful conversations with adults …they don’t have people in their lives outside of school who talk to them.” She finished by encouraging everyone to help, volunteer, and interact with students whenever they can.

Since the meeting, school board members and district administrators scheduled a community forum on school safety in an effort to continue an open discussion on the topic and to get feedback from parents and community members. The forum will be held on Sunday, March 4, at Vermilion High School. Refreshments will be served at 6 p.m. with the forum to start at 6:30 p.m. This is open to the public and everyone is strongly encouraged to attend.

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