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Shootings spark safety discussions in schools

St. Helens School District plans to examine safety plans


by: SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON - Otto Petersen Elementary in Scappoose, opened in 2010, was touted for its security-conscious design. Following the Dec. 14 school shooting in Connecticut, Columbia County school districts have reassured parents safety is a major priority. SPOTLIGHT PHOTO: KATIE WILSON The recent school shooting at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton, Conn., Dec. 14, sent shock waves across the nation and sparked increased discussion about security in Columbia County schools.

In St. Helens, the board of directors was already planning to review school safety plans at its meeting this week. In light of the recent shooting, the topic is even more relevant, said Mark Davalos, superintendent for the St. Helens School District.

“I’m not sure there’s any place nowadays where we could say, ‘This could never happen here,’” Davalos said.

Both Davalos and Scappoose School District Superintendent Stephen Jupe have been fielding phone calls from concerned parents since Dec. 14, and both superintendents have sent out messages to the community assuring families of the schools’ intentions to provide for the safety and education of their children.

Oregon law encourages schools to build alliances with local law enforcement, juvenile justice and district attorneys, and requires schools to develop crisis response policies, Davalos said. St. Helens and Scappoose have policies about when and how the schools go into lock-down mode.

Lt. Norman Miller with the Scappoose Police Department said local law enforcement works closely with the school districts to prepare for any type of emergency. The shooting in Connecticut acted not as a wake- up call but as a reminder that this sort of situation could happen anywhere.

“We have always provided security, and we’ve always been prepared for it and we train for it,” Miller said.

But school safety is a balancing act, said Davalos and Jupe. With tight budgets and teachers and administrative staff who are juggling multiple duties, school districts must prioritize.

“We do try to build our buildings and organize our flow of traffic in the best possible way,” Davalos said. Doors are lined up so secretaries can keep an eye on who is coming in and out. The school requires all visitors to check in and wear badges.

Still, a school’s mission and top priority remains the education of its students, Davalos said.

In the Scappoose School District, the buildings are fairly easy to lock down because of electronic locking devices, Jupe said, and he meets regularly with law enforcement.

Schools are also in a good position to identify where problems might lie and address them early on, Jupe said, referring to lessons learned from past shootings.

“We see the warning signs, where somebody needs help,” Jupe said.

“Tragedies like this make us all understandably concerned about the safety of our own schools and our own students,” said Rob Saxton, deputy superintendent of public instruction for the Oregon Department of Education, in a statement Dec. 14.

“Nothing is more important than the safety of our students while they are in our care and I know the teachers and administrators in our schools take this responsibility incredibly seriously.”

“We think about (school safety) all the time,” said St. Helens Police Lt. Terry Moss, adding that the Connecticut school shooting, “brings it back to the forefront.”

The department planned to train for “active shooter” situations long before the Clackamas Mall shooting and the Connecticut school shooting. Now, there is an increased sense of urgency to make sure this training happens, Moss said.

But beyond police training and response, there is a bigger discussion, Moss said.

“How do we prevent this from happening in the future?”