Districts work to reassure parents their students are safe

The 20-year-old killer who stalked the halls of a small elementary school in Newtown, Conn., Friday morning left more than two dozen bodies in his wake and forced dozens of Portland-area school districts to consider the possibility that something similar could happen here.

Across the country, school leaders tried to calm the nerves of dread-ridden parents who watched in horror as details emerged from the shooting deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Principals from the West Linn-Wilsonville School District emailed a message to families Friday morning.

The message stated, “We want to assure our parents and community that the safety of our children is our most important priority and we care deeply that each child feels safe at school. ... Our school staff is trained and practice a variety of emergency responses for a variety of situations.

“We have safety and emergency plans in place to deal with unauthorized visitors. Lockdown and evacuation procedures are in place should they ever need to be used. These are being reviewed in light of recent events.”

The email also included a resource from the National Association of School Psychologists and the Crisis Management Institute, which provided resources and tools for talking with children about violence.

Superintendent Bill Rhoades sent out a second email to families Friday afternoon.

“This is not the message I had hoped to be sharing this afternoon,” he wrote. “As I write, I find myself grateful for the incredible community support provided for our students, staff and families this week.”

Rhoades said the processes and procedures for providing physically and emotionally safe learning environments for students in the West Linn-Wilsonville School District combines both preventative and responsive strategies.

“Given recent tragic events the safety of our communities, schools, and campuses is on our minds and I want to share with you actions under way,” he said.

According to Rhoades, the school district is examining the securing of entrances and exits to buildings. School entrances are controlled by keeping all doors locked except those essential for safety. Visitors are required to sign in at the office and are asked to wear identifying name tags. Staff are also asked to wear identifying badges.

Evacuation, lockout and lock-down procedures are in place and staff are currently reviewing those procedures and preparing to practice as necessary, he said.

Rhoades said the school district is in the process of reviewing its emergency response protocols and guidelines and is doing so in coordination and consult with city and county law enforcement and emergency response officials.

Rhoades also provided a list of activities and safety measures that have occurred throughout the school district in the wake of the national tragedy. Within the school district:

  • Principals were instructed to be on high alert, to monitor their front entrance and to secure auxiliary doors and entrances.
  • Principals reviewed standard safety protocols for having all visitors — including parents — check in at the main office and receive a visitor’s tag.
  • Principals reviewed safety precautions and emergency procedures with students and staff and will practice as needed.
  • Crisis response teams reviewed their processes and protocols for communicating during and after a crisis and for providing counseling and psychological support for schools in need.
  • Counselors and psychologists were available to parents seeking advice on how to address children’s concerns and sense of safety following the tragedies. School counselors and support staff were also available to provide any needed support or assistance to students and staff members.
  • At West Linn High School, there is a full-time school resource officer who is tainted to deal with intruder situations, according to Principal Lou Bailey. “In fact, he was part of the team that went into the Clackamas mall situation,” he said.

    The West Linn police have also trained at the high school building and there is a security camera system that is monitored, according to Bailey.

    Rhoades encouraged families to speak with their children and reach out to their child’s principal if they need extra support.

    Rhoades reiterated the school district’s commitment to providing a safe school environment.

    “Please know that there is no higher priority for us than the safety of the students in our care,” he said. “We are fortunate to live in a safe community, but we are mindful that we must remain diligent just the same.”

    Portland-area school districts also issued notices shortly after the shooting, reassuring parents that safety measures in place — video cameras, school resource officers, lockdown drills and more — are well-adept at protecting students in the event of an emergency.

    “The horrible tragedy in Connecticut serves as a reminder of the importance of the emergency drills and protocols we have in place to help keep our schools safe,” said Athena Vadnais, spokeswoman for the Gresham-Barlow School District.

    Invest in school safety

    Events that unfolded Friday on the East Coast brought even more fear to a region already shaken by the Dec. 11 Clackamas Town Center shooting. School districts had councilors on hand to speak with students struggling with news of the recent violent acts.

    The Lake Oswego School District instructed principals to be on “high alert,” watch front entrances of their schools and lock all auxiliary doors.

    Both tragedies also made school districts reflect on current safety protocol and brainstorm possible improvements.

    Rob Saxton, deputy superintendent of public instruction for the Oregon Department of Education, said he was contacting schools to ensure thorough reviews of safety procedures were being conducted.

    “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,” said Saxton, former Tigard-Tualatin School District superintendent.

    Pamplin Media Group reporters Jordy Byrd, Christina Lent, Saundra Sorenson, Raymond Rendleman, Drew Dakessian and Lori Hall contributed to this news story.

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