Citizens group studies safety issues facing schools

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A citizens work group has been tasked with examining safety and security issues related to the Whitefish School District and looking for ways it can improve in the future.

The work group recently held its first meeting where the group made up of about 20 members, who include several school district staff members, parents, community members with professional backgrounds related to physical and mental safety issues and representatives from the Whitefish Police and Fire departments, brainstormed about areas where there may be a “gaps in safety” that need addressing. A list of concerns from the group ranged from physical access to the school buildings to cyber access to the district’s data information.

The Whitefish School Board in November authorized the creation of the school safety and security citizens work group.

The board set the mission of the working group to “identify, research, explore and develop ideas that respond to physical, emotional, mental safety and security” in Whitefish Schools.

Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said the creation of the work group was prompted by a number of factors.

“The white supremacist threats early this year, the cyber terrorist event and the fact that this is an opportunity for us to deal with any concerns as we work on a major construction project to construct a new Muldown School,” she said.

Whitefish businesses and community members faced threats early in 2017 from the leader of a neo-Nazi website who also threated to hold a march through town and then Flathead Valley schools this fall were forced to close for three days after cyber threats were made as part of an extortion ploy. The school district is also designing a new elementary school building.

The school district is utilizing facilitator Ginny Tribe from Missoula to guide the work group as it plans to take a look at safety measures already in place in the school district, explore what the group believes should be applied or implemented across the district and eventually provide suggestions to the school board.

Much of the first meeting was spent brainstorming about areas where members of the safety work group see as “challenges and potential gaps” in safety and security in the district.

Group members quickly pointed to items of physical safety — ease of access to buildings, monitoring procedures for visitors, a lack of physical barriers for a potential intruder and proximity to the railroad tracks in terms of a disaster situation. As a challenge some pointed out the need to balance safety, while also making sure that the schools remain a welcoming place and providing students with knowledge but ensuring they also feel safe.

Another area of concern was information — having consistent rules between schools while maintaining the right appropriateness based on age of students in the school, educating not just students and staff about safety issues, but also families, procedures for how information will be disseminated in the case of an emergency and ensuring communication between the school district and first responders.

A few items concerning technology were also noted, including concerns about the impact of social media on the emotional and mental safety of students, the safety of school district data in relation to cyber threats, and how to manage information related to emergency situations when many students have cell phones.

The School District is not without safety measures already. Davis Schmidt pointed out that the district recently revised its safety and security handbook and it has a Quick Response Team, which includes district staff members and includes procedures for managing crises at the school, from death of student or staff to fire evacuations to intruder situations.

Davis Schmidt noted that the school board is looking to get suggestions related to safety and security from the working group, which will allow the board to provide a framework for school administrators to prioritize and make decisions moving forward.

“It’s such a diverse group,” she said of the work group. “There’s staff, parents and great expertise that come from the community. The good thing about a small community is that you get people from different segments with expertise, but then they’re also parents — they’re truly invested in the community.”

The board created the work group from a mix of community and school staff members for a reason.

“We didn’t want to be insulated in our own world of education,” Davis Schmidt said. “We wanted to see the community work together to get a broader perspective.”

The citizens group expects to hold three more meetings this winter and plans to meet with the school board during a work session on March 20 to present its suggestions on school safety and security.

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