By Melanie Williamson
On Sunday, March 4, the Vermilion High School commons was filled with parents, students, teachers, school administrators, school board members past and present, city council members, city administrators, police officers, local pastors, and community members to discuss school safety. The event, which was called “One Community One Mission: building relationships for stronger schools” gave those in attendance the opportunity to learn more about the current safety of the school and to take an opportunity to discuss what changes they would like to see moving forward.
The event opened with superintendent Phil Pempin addressing the crowd to discuss current safety measures and the goal in planning the meeting. Pempin stated that the district works continually to be prepared for all types of emergencies including school shootings. He went on to explain that the goal in this meeting was to get input from parents and the community to better understand what they want to see done.
Pempin also shared that he doesn’t want the conversation to end after this meeting. The mission of this new initiative is “Let’s work together to protect our kids.” This meeting was the first of many. The district is starting what is called Parent University. It will be a quarterly meeting through the school year to bring parents together and discuss topics of safety, but also to address any other concerns they may have. Everyone in attendance was provided with a survey and asked to mark the topics they wanted to see discussed at a district level.
In regards to campus safety, Pempin stated that the district has a crisis committee that meets regularly to consistently go over safety measures, options, drills, and other tasks related to safety. This team works with Homeland Security, which provides safety assessments and recommendations. He also stated that moving to a single campus has helped to strengthen safety measures by allowing the schools to work together more closely and to make communication better and faster. He shared information about the drills practiced by students and teachers and other safety precautions already in place.
He also shared that every teacher has a crisis bag that includes all the information and tools they need during a crisis to ensure that every student remains accounted for and everyone knows exactly what they need to be doing and where they need to go depending on the type of crisis they are facing. The manuals in the crisis bags are updated every year and follow the crisis plans developed with the coordination of Homeland Security.
Student Resource Officer Brian Beckwith addressed the meeting sharing that this was his third year as SRO, but that the district has had an SRO on the campus for many years. He went on to say that he wants to see everyone get involved, and that his goal is to help bridge the gap between the schools, the police department and the parents. He welcomed everyone there to see him if they had any questions or wanted to discuss anything.
Pempin introduced students from two different student groups that are actively working within the schools to stop bullying and to promote a safe and positive atmosphere. First up were Jonah Pfeil and Skyler Myers, members of the peer leadership class at the high school. Pfeil shared that their group works to promote school spirit and safety. They also run the Big Buddy program which involves high school students pairing up with students at the elementary school. The buddies meet weekly so the high school students can help the younger students with reading or homework, as well as spend time doing fun things and building a positive relationship. Myers shared that peer leadership also organizes an eighth grade orientation, which includes an ongoing program for them to stay in contact with eighth graders to help them to adjust to their new academic setting. They’ve also planned a mental health awareness week to bring attention to mental health for students.
Shane Troyano and Nikki Peter stood up to share a bit about a student group they are in called Move 2 Stand. Nikki shared that this is an all-inclusive group within the school. They do an annual training and absolutely everyone is invited to join in. They focus on issues related to bullying and other concerns students may have. She also shared that they recently the expanded the program to train other districts on how to start a Move 2 Stand group.
After hearing from the student groups, Pempin stated that the Vermilion Local Schools district has really great kids, and even though he acknowledges the district is not perfect, they continually work to create an atmosphere that is welcoming, clean, organized, and caring.
In an effort to get input from parents and community members, he asked everyone in attendance to move to one of the 14 tables that were set up in the commons area. At each table was a volunteer, who would facilitate the conversation to see what others felt should be done to improve school safety. Each group was asked to spend some time discussing the issue and then to come back with what they felt was the most important thing to take away from the discussion.
After each group had an opportunity to share their ideas with the larger group, it became clear that the majority of people were focused on ways to be proactive, opposed to reactive. They were focusing on how mental health issues are identified and addressed, and what the district can do to prevent any sort of violent attack from ever happening. A couple groups suggested that parents and community members should be provided with more direct information on mental health and what to watch for. The district has been promoting the idea of “see something, say something,” but if parents and other adults don’t know the warning signs they should be watching for, they may not know when to say something.
Other ideas included expanding from one SRO for the entire district to one SRO per building. One group suggested they get community volunteers to help in the schools and with the SRO to have more eyes and ears in the buildings. Sailorway Middle School already has a program called Watch DOGS that works to accomplish just that, and it is a program that could be expanded into the other buildings.
It was also suggested to increase the number of counselors or to bring in a dedicated social worker to work with students. One suggestion was to have every student meet with a school counselor once a year just to eliminate the stigma students may feel going to a counselor to ask for help. A couple groups suggested the district set up an easily reachable hotline that would allow students or parents to anonymously voice safety concerns they may have.
There were also several practical things discussed such as getting more surveillance cameras and putting alarms on the back and side doors, so no one can open the door without the office being notified. Parents in different groups asked about the possibility of metal detectors or bulletproof glass in the doors and windows. A couple groups brought up the idea of bringing a security consultant in to see where the buildings can be better protected.
Former school board member David Rice stood up to explain one of the district’s options in terms of funding safety initiatives. Rice explained that several years ago the Vermilion School Board worked with Senators Manning and Gardner to pass legislation allowing districts to put a levy on the ballot, which would be solely dedicated to safety upgrades. He went on to explain that after the Columbine shooting, the government provided districts with $40,000 to pay for a student resource officer. That amount was later reduced to $20,000, and eventually zero. This made having a SRO financially impossible for many districts. Vermilion Local Schools have continued to pay for that because they saw the value and necessity in having a dedicated officer for the schools.
Following the meeting, Pempin stated that he was very happy with the turnout, but he wanted to see more. He stated that there are 2000 students in the district, and he wants to see all parents get involved. When asked about the prospect of a safety levy, he shared that the people in attendance seemed in favor of the idea, but there would be more research needed before making that decision. He went on to say that there were a lot of great ideas brought up during the meeting, but everything costs money. He plans to take the time to explore the ideas suggested with the school board and crisis committee to see what the district wants to actively pursue and go from there.