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School district amps up security


Officials respond to recent shootings and campus-wide rumors

Hypervigilance abounds in a community already traumatized by the Dec. 11 Clackamas Town Center shooting, which claimed the lives of two shoppers and injured a third. In the wake of Friday’s elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn., which left 20 children and six teachers dead, parents and students throughout the Tigard-Tualatin School District have questioned their schools’ safety. Both Tigard and Tualatin high schools addressed rumors of potential attacks on their respective campuses. According to administrators at both schools, as well as local law enforcement officials, rumors were immediately and thoroughly investigated.

“We haven’t found any of the info we’ve had so far credible,” said Lt. Greg Pickering, spokesman for the Tualatin Police Department. “We’re working with the school district and the monitors up at the high school to make our presence known.”

He described TuPD’s approach to investigating such rumors as “very hands-on.”

“Our school resource officers will obviously be visible,” Pickering said. “We just want to finish off this time before Christmas break on a positive note.”

At Tualatin High School, an unidentified student made a post to Twitter stating she would stay home from school Dec. 21 due to a rumor that there would be a shooting incident on campus that day.

According to TuHS Principal Darin Barnard, the school was made aware of the rumor a couple hours after Friday’s shooting in Connecticut. When his office became aware of the alleged threat, Barnard said, the school immediately contacted the Tualatin Police Department and interviewed the source of the tweet.

“She had heard (the rumor) from someone, so she just repeated it,” Barnard said. No disciplinary action was taken against the student, and school administration worked with TuPD officers to call in and question any student mentioned in what Barnard describes as a kind of “telephone game” — the phenomenon whereby the details of a rumor change slightly each time the rumor is repeated.

“We’re paying close attention to everything,” Pickering said. “Our officers and our investigators are looking into everything to make sure there’s nothing we’ve missed. You know how the rumor mill gets started — we just want to make sure any of the info we’re getting, we’re following up with.”

School attendance was down on Monday, the first school day since the Newtown shooting, but not significantly, Barnard said. Still, the TuHS office was “inundated with calls” regarding about 10 different rumors, by Barnard’s estimate.

“We want to take it all seriously,” he said. “If we hear a rumor, we want to get to the bottom of it.”

Barnard has seen how easily a rumor can be created and spiral out of control: This week, a notebook was found on a table in the school’s cafeteria, then turned in at the main office. The office then tried to track down the notebook’s owner in order to return it. News of this insignificant process took on its own narrative — that students had found a notebook with a map of the school and plans of attack written inside. This was simply not true, Barnard said.

In many ways, the evolution of rumors has changed very little since the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, one of the most high-profile massacres on a public school campus. Word of mouth propagated similar concerns and unsubstantiated rumors on campuses nationwide. But social media outlets like Twitter and Facebook — on which teachers, administrators and law enforcement have limited access to student presence — expedite things. Barnard said TuHS students with far better access to their peers’ social media presence have been dependable about reporting any strange news or rumors they have seen online.

Respecting welfare

Meanwhile, TuHS maintained its regular presence of two student resource officers, members of the TuPD who are always on campus during school hours, with an extra police officer added to the team. The TuPD has increased its patrols near area schools, Barnard said, and there would likely be heightened police presence on Thursday and Friday. New procedures were put in place so that administration also patrolled halls between class periods. Teachers now stand at their doors to keep an eye on the comings and goings of everyone in school corridors.

“We have a safe environment here,” Barnard said. “We have increased police presence here.”

After such traumatic events, district schools increase focus on students’ mental welfare in addition to their physical safety. Barnard reported that TuHS called in an additional grief and crisis counselor, providing a total of six counseling professionals on campus. As of Monday, Barnard said, there had not been a high demand for counseling services.

Barnard admitted there was a delicate balance between putting proper, pre-emptive security measures in place and responding to concerns in a way that didn’t make students feel they were attending classes in a volatile atmosphere.

Still, he said, “At Tualatin High, we have 27 doors. It’s difficult to monitor 27 doors.”

Ensuring the safety of current TuHS students has also meant discouraging former students from visiting during what is typically a popular time for recent grads just finished with their college semesters to check back in with favorite teachers.

“We’ve tried to send the message: This is not the week to come back to visit,” Barnard said.

Concerned that not enough of the students’ families received email communications, the school was also preparing to send out messaging via prerecorded voicemails as of Monday afternoon.

Beyond the high school level, Tigard-Tualatin School District spokeswoman Susan Stark Haydon reported that school resource officers, who are members of law enforcement assigned daily “beats” throughout the campus, patrolled campuses and were fully armed and equipped at all times in order to be the first responders to emergencies at district schools. In addition, regular “lockdown drills” are practiced, Stark Haydon said. A lockdown could be in response to on-campus violence, but more regularly is in response to nearby incidents. She said lockouts happen about two to three times a year in the district in response to incidents that occur near TTSD schools.

“At our elementary schools, you pretty much can’t get into the school without going into the school office,” Stark Haydon said. “People have to stop in the school office and sign in. At most elementary schools there’s only one door that’s unlocked to be able to get in and out of the building.”

“We try to have everything in place that you can possibly do to prepare for something like this,” Stark Haydon added. Additionally, she reported that care coordinators are available throughout the district to connect students with mental health support in the aftermath of trauma or crises.

“I think what happened at Clackamas Town Center on Tuesday makes (events like what happened in Newtown, Conn.) seem more possible,” Stark Haydon said on Friday. “We also have a crisis response team, and the flight team of counselors, so if there is something that happens we have support for staff and students.”

For the latest updates on school safety measures, visit the district’s website at ttsdschools.org.