TONASKET – Tonasket School Board members set aside their regular agenda March 14 to hear community members’ feedback on school safety.
“We’re very interested in hearing your concerns,” said Superintendent Steve McCullough as the floor was turned over to the public.
The first to speak was Rose Corso, a former Tonasket Elementary School teacher and current substitute.
Corso recalls being trained as a teacher following Columbine to keep her classroom safe in the event of an intruder, with instructions to huddle with students under desks.
“It was scary, but at the same time reassuring. Now they’re arming teachers, and it makes absolutely no sense to me,” said Corso. “Guns would be locked away and hard to get to. I can’t imagine being under the table with kids and then leaving them to go get a gun. Maybe the principal who gets the big bucks should be the one to get the gun. It seems like a very difficult thing for any teacher to take on.”
John Tafolla, a parent with three kids in school, said he wanted to stop seeing kids die in schools, and wanted to see schools to working with kids on the issue.
Scott Smith pointed out that the political climate changed after the shootings in Parkland, Florida, and of the need for young people to have their voices heard.
“Young 17 year olds saw their friends die,” said Smith, mentioning a front page article in the Methow Valley News with students discussing what they would do on March 14, the one-month anniversary of the Parkland shooting. “They weren’t making a political point, just saying something has to change. These are young adults we are putting out into the world. They need to think about these things and they need direction. As adults we think arming someone at the door is the solution, and that’s not right. I’ve been a gun owner all my life, and I know aim is difficult; much less if you have someone coming at you.”
Smith said discussion needed to be encourage, not stifled. “They are the ones who will be voting and putting a rifle over their back to support the rest of us. Hopefully we can provide a forum of some type. If not at school, where?” asked Smith.
Superintendent McCullough said with the media portraying the upcoming walkout as a strong political stance, and an anti-gun method, the school received lots of phone calls from parents.
“They were warning us they would come too, and protest. Across the nation, we’ve seen reactions on all spectrums. We’re trying to find middle ground,” said McCullough, adding that Maria Polito gave “an incredible, two-minute apolitical speech” to her fellow students.
“She did a great job,” said high school principal Brian Ellis. “It was about supporting the kids in Parkland, and that school violence needs to stop. It was not anti-gun. She said, “We as kids have a voice and we need to be heard.”
Middle school principal Kristi Krieg said her leadership classes were discussing ways to seek change, and that she would be inviting Polito to make her speech for the middle school students.
“Her voice was very neutral, and the middle school students looked up to her,” said Krieg. “If we missed an opportunity today, that doesn’t mean we can’t learn from it.”
THS student Phoenix Willigig said it was sad how politicized the issue had become. “This was not supposed to be about gun rights. It should be about the students,” said Willigig. “The fact that it becomes a political thing isolates both sides and opens the door for it to happen over and over again.”
Willigig said she was “really proud of our school for what they have done and how they have remained neutral, like a school should.”
“It’s a tough balance, but working together and recognizing the problem, not whether it is left or right wing, but just identifying it, is what we need to focus on,” said parent Danika Kaufman. “We achieved that today.”
Alex Eppel, who works with students in the TRIO college access program, said, “We all have a lot of fear about how divided our community seems, nationally and here in Tonasket. It’s important we all return to that common ground of wanting safe schools.”
“How we create a safe space, is all about school culture. We need to focus our time on having a positive environment for our kids to learn,” said Eppel. “And student voices need to be at the forefront of that conversation.”
Amanda Schuller, a parent and school counselor, said kids misbehaving in class “are the leaders who don’t know how to put that energy to use.”
“The kids sitting in the back of the room quietly are the scary ones,” said Schuller. “We need to see who are the kids no one is paying attention to, and those are the kids we need to focus on.”
Schuller also stated she would not send her kids to a school that had armed guards or guns in school. Schuller added that she appriciated principals Krieg and Ellis standing outside for the walkout.
“I’m a fairly progressive person, and I did respect the way the school handled it, especially in a rural area where there is a lot of controversy,” said Schuller.
Julie Alley said she appreciated the list the school presented on recent improvements made in the way of school safety and activities in progress. Actions already taken include installing cameras in all school buildings and buses, doing monthly emergency drills including lockdown drills and placing a Shelter in Place kit in each classroom (see entire list at end of article).
What she didn’t appreciate was kids being discouraged from expressing their opinions.
“During Spirit Week, the ASB had permission to have ‘Movement Day,’ where students could dress up as something they wanted to stand up for,” said Alley. “We got a call over the weekend that ‘Movement Day’ was cancelled. ‘Movement Day’ is scary; we as adults don’t have the social emotional skills to handle that, kids dressing up as something they feel strong about. It was changed to ‘Pajama Day.’ I told my daughter they should call it, ‘Sleep Through History Happening Day.’”
Alley reported when her daughter joined eight seniors in dressing up for ‘Movement Day,’ she “got glares from teachers.”
“She said to me, ‘I have never had glares from teachers before.’ That does not sit well with me. To put her heart out there, and be glared at for it. She’s a strong person, but a kid without support at home might not take our ‘neutral stance’ as well as others,” said Alley. “I want to ask our school to learn some social emotional skills, as well as working on safety.”
Smith commented on kids speaking up. “It takes a tremendous amount of courage for these kids to step forward in a time like this. It is very difficult,” said Smith. “Those kids watching this now, they are the new target, and we need to support and reward that courage to step forward.”
Superintendent McCullough reminded audience members the target is also administration and staff.
“In every case, there were one or more of them that put themselves in the line of fire,” said McCullough. “I have an obligation to not just the students, but the staff as well.”
McCullough said he attended a conference call with superintendents across the state, and shared discussions about one school district having armed teachers for the past half dozen years, and a school district in Toppenish arming just administrators.
Karen Schmidt said as a nurse in the Vietnam War, she took care of combat wounds, as well as “mistakes when a gun gets fired the wrong way.”
“In this situation, you really have to weigh where is it going to do good, and where is it going to go wrong,” said Schmidt. “Teachers with a gun, there are so many ways it could go wrong than right. Crafty kids can figure out a way to get into that safe.”
McCullough said in Topenish, just some of the administrators had guns, and no one knew which ones.
“We should arm teachers with the skills to see a kid who is isolated, depressed or who doesn’t have support at home. Not just to refer them to mental health, but to interact with them themselves,” said Schuller. “I would like to see resources go to teachers and administrators on how to engage with kids.”
Willigig said while traveling to other schools with the Knowledge Bowl team, “We saw they didn’t have the same emotional environment we have. It is important to really focus on how students interact with each other. In the generation so focused on phones, we don’t always get the social emotional skills,” said Willigig.
Corso said that as a teacher doing ‘Open Circle,’ sitting on the floor with kids, “We couldn’t get it out of the kids who were most bothered. But you could see which ones, and then take the opportunity, maybe on your lunch hour, to make sure the kid feels they are part of something positive like that.”
Corso sad she was sad to see teachers in the elementary school no longer have to supervise lunch.
“”That was the best time of the day to get to talk to kids. For me, that was one of those connecting pieces. It gave me an opportunity to show them manners, or talk to them about what is going on at home.”
Tonasket School District Safety and Security Recent Improvements/Actions
- Installed cameras in all school buildings
- Installed cameras in all school buses
- Monthly emergency drills including lockdown drills
- 2017 Safety Audit by ESD 171
- SafeSchools training module on school shootings made available to all staff
- Shelter in Place kits in all classrooms
- In-classroom discussions about school lockdowns in all schools last week
- Staff discussions about school safety and emergency drills–ongoing
- Safety Committee established and meeting regularly
- Increased mental health counseling in our schools with OBHC staff in district
- SafeSchools Alert system implemented
- Automatic screening of all student work on Google products (Google Drive and Google Email)
- Internet Safety taught to all students K-12
- PBIS training for teachers, bus drivers and other staff
- Right Response physical restraint training–ongoing
- Civility Policy Adoption
- Removal of shrubs around district entrances–ongoing
- Improved parking lot lighting
- Strong relationship with local police department and sheriff deputies
- Require all extra-curricular staff to be trained in CPR/First Aid/AED, concussion awareness and return to play protocol, and sudden cardiac arrest training
- Increased nursing staffing to every day of the week
- Second Step social skills training in the ES
- AED (defibrillator) in most buildings
- Door magnets for easy securing of classroom doors
- Emergency call button on each phone
- Notification of key staff for all 911 calls from school
- Automatic phone calling, email, text system
- Facebook as a communication tool
Activities in Progress
- Development of regional/county emergency flip chart
- FEMA training with 5 staff in July, 2018
- ACEs (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Training in August for all Staff
- AED kits out on ball fields
- Emergency medical supplies in every classroom (tourniquet, gauze, chest seal)
- Class numbers near phones in each classrooms