School districts reassure parents their students are safe

The Lake Oswego School District is not exactly known as a hotbed of crime.

“You’re going to see, to start with, a difference in terms of the kind of community that Lake Oswego is and the kind of community that some school districts have in Portland,” said LOSD Superintendent Bill Korach. “There is an enormous difference in the challenges that are associated with people being on campus that don’t belong there.”by: SUBMITTED - It was a  Bushmaster rifle  like this one that was used last Friday in the Newton, Conn.  rampage that left 20 children and six adults dead

Though full-time high school security at Lake Oswego’s two high schools was eliminated due to state funding cuts, Korach said LOSD is nevertheless safe.

“We have immediate, outstanding support from the Lake Oswego Police Department as they work very closely with us and they’re extremely responsive ... their response time is two minutes.”

Korach also noted that Lake Oswego does not have a transient population to worry about.

“We’re also fortunate that our kids are very academically focused, so they’re not wandering in and out of the place. If they’re leaving, they’re going to a work program or they’re going to OHSU to do an internship. It’s just a different kind of situation than you’ll find in other schools.”

But after Friday’s events in Newtown, it’s another story.

“This isn’t a normal procedure situation,” Korach said. “We’re going to high alert mode; staff will be on high alert in the buildings, just to be aware that sometimes this triggers a person to do things that normally you wouldn’t expect. Do we really think that’s going to happen? No, but it is really important we’re with our people, that our counselors now are being alerted and will definitely be able to talk to students.”

He added: “This will be really hard for anyone to fathom or deal with; it’s just a horrific sort of thing. Obviously we have to take this seriously. At the same time it is more of a psychological concern that we know we can do something about. We can help parents and kids deal with this and hopefully that will help in some way.”

Adam Lanza used an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle to kill 20 Sandy Hook students — mostly first-graders between ages 6 and 7 — during his rampage. His mother, Nancy Lanza, a gun enthusiast who owned several weapons, was his first victim.

Several school staff and teachers tried to stop the attack and were shot. Police said Adam Lanza killed himself after the rampage.

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. And local school districts were working hard to make schools as safe as possible.

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.

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.

Both tragedies also made school districts reflect on current safety protocol and brainstorm possible improvements. In a letter sent to parents last Friday, John Ferraro, principal at Jackson Middle School in Portland, said he was searching for way to upgrade protective measures.

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.

Friday was also an opportunity to remind parents of the numerous steps schools have taken to protect students and respond swiftly to an intruder.

Reynolds High School, for example, has the ability to lock all auxiliary and classroom doors during an emergency. Video surveillance has been installed throughout the school and at all entrances.

The high school also makes its building available to law enforcement to hold shooter-simulation exercises and become familiar with the layout of the school.

“We’re doing everything to keep our kids safe,” Reynolds School District spokeswoman Andrea Watson said.

In good shape

Some school districts that have received additional resources from bond measures include the Springfield School District, home of Thurston High School, the site of another shooting that killed two students in 1998.

Voters approved a bond that allowed the district to improve security with fences, surveillance cameras, increased visibility and limited outside access.

A bond passed in 2008 allowed the Oregon Trail School District to upgrade security at all schools, including the new Sandy High School.

“We are also fortunate that citizens approved a bond measure in 2008 that allowed us to make significant security improvements at every school in our district, including automatic door-lock systems and security cameras,” according to a Dec. 14 district press release.

The high school was designed for staff in the main office to have clear visibility of the main entrance. But at other schools in the district, staff in the front office, where all visitors are required to check in, have limited visibility of those coming and going through the front doors.

Julia Monteith, the district’s spokeswoman, admits that deficiencies exist, but said the schools counter the issue by always trying to have staff present in the hallways.

“We know that there are vulnerabilities,” she said. “If we could redesign every school in the district we would do it. What we can do is keep all other doors locked.”

Other districts have been forced to repeal certain safety measures because of budget cuts, such as Estacada High School, which had a school resource officer on campus.

Today, the one Clackamas County sheriff’s deputy patrolling the city of Estacada is the officer who would respond to an incident at the high school. That response time, however, can vary greatly because the city doesn’t have its own police force.

But on the rare occasion the high school has called the police for a serious matter, Assistant Principal Gary Lewis said the response time has always been fast.

“Could I sit here today and say we’re 100 percent safe? Probably not,” Lewis said. “We try to do everything we possibly can to make sure our kids are safe. Short of the school resource officer, we’re in about as good of shape as we could be.

“We take security very seriously, but I don’t know if you can ever do enough.”

Local steps outlined by school officials

Horrible events were on the collective minds of the Lake Oswego School Board Monday.

Acting board chairwoman Linda Brown read from a letter from the board, noting, “the atrocities that occurred last week at both Clackamas Town Center and at Sandy Hook Grade School in Connecticut and the complete disregard for human life.”

She then yielded the floor to Superintendent Bill Korach, who described the district emergency response activities that took place in the immediate aftermath of Friday’s school shooting on the East Coast. Korach went on to enumerate those that will take place in the near future, including “a meeting for all district administrators and supervisors to review strategic planning activities in response to safety concerns for students and staff in emergency situations” Wednesday night and “an emergency response workshop for all district administrators and supervisory staff” with the Lake Oswego Police Department in early January.

Korach noted that Lake Oswego students are well-protected not just because of a general lack of violent crime in the area, but because LOSD has a close working relationship with the Lake Oswego Police Department.

Korach said he was able to confer with police Chief Don Johnson on Friday even though he had been out of town because they know each other’s cellphone numbers.

Still, Korach said he is poignantly aware that in times like these, even the most seemingly safe school district needs to be prepared.

“Obviously this is very much in all of our minds right now,” Korach said. “We’re very, very serious about this, and even though it’s a huge long shot that anything like this would happen in Lake Oswego, Chief Johnson’s words really hit me this morning when he said, ‘Bill, these kinds of things have started to happen; there are conditions in this country that are going to make this something that we are going to experience again,’ and we certainly embrace the fact that we need to be ready and we need to be proactive. It isn’t just how you react; it’s what you do before the problem that really makes the most difference.”

Brown thanked the superintendent “for being so proactive and immediately responding ... knowing that these are not events that can be responded to in most normal ways.”

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

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