Safe learning environments — our highest priority

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Heather Davis Schmidt

The national debate on gun laws and school safety has intensified since the tragic recent events in Florida. While I don’t wish to debate the intent of the Second Amendment in the modern era, I do want to share a few thoughts about safety and security in Whitefish Schools and our school culture.

Let me first be very clear about one policy debate. Schools are no place for guns. While some reactionary politicians chant again for arming school teachers with concealed weapons, that is clearly the wrong direction.

Our focus must be on learning and the learning environment. I personally think, no matter how well-trained, that a staff member carrying a gun in school would change the whole dynamic of the classroom. Our teachers must be focused on the best interests of students. Teachers have a very different role than law enforcement.

According to the National School Superintendent’s Association research, “Schools remain the safest place for children, and today’s schools are considerably safer than they were 20 years ago. Over the last decade, the number of schools reporting an incident of violent crime fell by more than 20 percent. Further, an April 2012 poll found that 84 percent of parents believe their child is safe in school.”

“Yet despite successful efforts by school districts to reduce gun violence, each year 3,000 children and teens are killed by guns and 15,000 are injured outside of schools. Overall, America’s children are 16 times more likely to be murdered through gun violence than children in any other of the world’s top 25 industrialized countries. Thus, a solution to preventing the killing of innocent youth cannot be the sole responsibility of the school community.”

While this national debate continues, I have been working locally with a Safety and Security Citizens Work Group for the past five months. Following the cyber-terror attacks on schools in the Flathead Valley this past fall, the Whitefish School District Board of Trustees identified a need for a facilitated conversation about safety and security in our schools. The work group has included representatives from fire and law enforcement, teachers, support staff, administration, local business owners, construction and mental health experts, and parents. The work group will make recommendations to the school board at our March 20 work session.

Over the course of the work group’s conversation and research it became clear that the dynamics surrounding school safety are evolving. We need to not only be concerned about the physical security of our schools, but we must also ensure that our staff is trained — and focus on the culture we create in our schools. Our kids need to feel safe, and need to learn in a welcoming, friendly environment.

Looking at the physical environment, we continue to upgrade our schools with modern security technology including cameras and alarms. The work group will also recommend additional technology-based security measures and ask for consideration of other physical security upgrades.

On the training side, we have focused on empowering our teachers and staff with “Run, Lock, Fight” techniques. We prioritize this training and refresher training for all staff in Whitefish Schools in collaboration with local law enforcement. Whitefish Schools are the leaders in the Flathead Valley with this training and we will continue to work with other districts to help them add this additional and essential layer of training.

But even this is not enough. I think the most important conclusions we have reached are that the safest schools have cultures of trust, where all people are included and feel like they belong. This extends throughout the culture of the entire community.

In Whitefish Schools, we continue working to embed this type of caring and inclusive culture and we all need to take collective responsibility for the safety and security of schools and town. We need to care and look out for one another. I think that the Whitefish community already does a good job in this area, but we can always improve.

Everyone should always be vigilant to potential concerns or suspicious behaviors in our schools and community and to report those concerns. I want you to know that we are listening. Please don’t ever be afraid to speak up. We have mechanisms and systems in place to help and we can investigate any concerns in a way that respects the dignity of all involved.

I’d also like to remind the community, families, and students that there are many resources available to talk with kids about traumatic events. Counselors and school psychologists are available to help continue any conversations as needed to promote positive coping and problem solving skills. Contact us so we can direct you to the most appropriate resources.

As we have all seen in the news, students across the country are using their voice to talk about violence in schools and to create some real progress in the gun law debate, especially as it relates to access to automatic weapons. Democracy in action is powerful and expressing this voice in a safe and non-disruptive way is critical to our democratic process. We are here to listen and support our students. Let’s keep the discussion going.

Heather Davis Schmidt is the Superintendent of the Whitefish School District.

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