Group recommends changes related to school safety

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It takes a village to raise a child, Whitefish Police Chief Bill Dial says, and Whitefish is no exception.

Whitefish School District staff and community members came together late last year around that idea to explore the different facets of improving school safety here as the larger topic of safety in the classroom continues to gain traction on the national stage. The Safety and Security Citizens Work Group, created by the School Board in December, spent months working under the direction of the board to explore, research and develop suggestions related to safety and security in the district.

Returning to present its work, the group created four sections for their advisory suggestions for the board, including internal and external building vulnerabilities, supporting student safety with regard to social, emotional and mental health issues, cyber-security and bullying, and communication about training within the district and community.

The safety and security group was made up of 21 community members representing a diverse spectrum of Whitefish and Flathead residents.

Throughout their five meetings, the group sought to answer important questions that needed exploration, such as “What are we willing to give up for safety,” and “How do we maintain the welcoming nature of the schools while implementing safety and security measures?”

Members of the group were also asked to reach out to others in the community and ask these tough questions, Patty Kennelly, a licensed clinical social worker and group member, explained.

“We were all tasked to reach out to what we call traplines, to answer specific questions like ‘What do you think are safety and security issues in Whitefish schools?’” she said. “So while there were only 21 of us in that room, we really had a wide variety of feedback from our community.”

Under internal and external vulnerabilities and risk, the group looked at types of security to implement and examined what daily threats need to be addressed at the schools.

Suggestions include things like creating better views from the front office to see who is entering schools, separating pick up and drop off areas from playgrounds, and considering areas for coffee chats when parents drop their students off, among other ideas.

Assistant Police Chief Bridger Kelch said the last idea sounds like a joke, but it’s representative of the community.

“That brought a lot of laughter in our discussion, but there is a culture in Whitefish that people like to gather and socialize while they drop off their kids,” Kelch said. “Do we need to change that? Why not work around it and provide an area for that so it works within our plan?”

With regard to support for students with mental, behavioral or emotional issues, the group suggests ways to continue many programs already in place, like Multi-Tiered Systems of Support.

The group also suggests things like implementing a K-12 social/emotional learning curriculum and providing early and consistent education on diversity.

For cyber-security and cyber-bullying, the group suggests embedding digital citizenship curriculum in grades K-12 and integrating the social/emotional learning into the digital realm.

Following last September’s cyber-terrorism threats across the Valley, the district contracted a security firm to analyze and tighten up the digital security of Whitefish Schools.

However, reining in cyber-bullying among classmates is a harder task, community member Rod Garcia noted, as kids are getting smartphones earlier and earlier every year.

“This is kind of an issue that impacts us starting at a very young age and something we’re going to have to live with for a long time, so it’s time to jump on it and get ahead of it,” Garcia said.

For communication and training, the group asked the board to have a discussion for handling off-campus incidents involving students and staff and how training measures should be shared with the community.

During the meeting, Trustee Katie Clarke asked how the community involvement aspect of the suggestions would work in practice.

Karen Farr VanAlstin said the community’s willingness to look at these suggestions and apply them is the hard part, but where the real work is done.

“We also identified that the hardest part of this whole plan is the community involvement, because the community — they want the goodies, but they don’t want to put in the work for that,” she said. “We did discuss that very passionately from different points of view, so even though the easiest part seems to be the community, that’s also going to be one of our biggest hurdles.”

District Superintendent Heather Davis Schmidt said the board will review the suggestions, but the bright side is that a lot of the advice was to continue current programs in place.

“There’s no way that we can implement all of the suggestions tomorrow,” she said. “At the same time, many of the things that are in here are already in place in the school district.”

Speaking as a member of the public, Joan Vetter Ehrenberg said she likes the ideas, but thinks it’s time for action.

“We’ve been down this road. I’ve been here, six years ago presenting programs, and we still have problems,” she said. “What we do need is to implement a culture of kindness in our community, and a mentoring program which is real.”

VanAlstin said she already sees that culture of kindness in Whitefish.

“From personal experience, from when I first visited Whitefish in 2002 to now, I have seen an increase of inclusive activities and behavior. When I first went there in 2002, some people were still, ‘You’re different, you’re new, I’m going to go this way.’ But between then and 2018, this community as a whole has blossomed into something that other communities should take notice of.”

In the end, it’s all about the community, Police Chief Bill Dial said at the meeting.

It’s no good to give up because securing school safety seems tougher, he said. Instead, it’s time to come together and make safer schools happen.

“You know the old saying, ‘It takes a village to raise a child?’ That’s basically what this is all about,” he said. “I have to hear from parents, the [School Resource Officer] has to hear from parents. We have to be engaged, the board has to be engaged, the citizens have to be engaged, and that’s how the village works.”

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