As we are all struggling to comprehend yet another tragic school shooting, I thought it would be helpful to share some thoughts regarding how we approach student safety in City Schools of Decatur (CSD). I will also share some thoughts about the school walkouts that others are planning.
The School Board has been and remains committed to regularly evaluating CSD’s student safety policies and protocols as one of our top priorities. Even before the tragic events in Parkland, Florida, and at the Board’s request, my team had been working on presenting an update for the Board regarding student safety protocols. This discussion item will be on the agenda at the Board’s March 20 meeting. We invite you to attend the meeting and welcome your input during the Public Comment portion of the meeting.
In general, the philosophy of CSD when it comes to student safety has been, and continues to be, one of taking active steps to keep students safe while simultaneously maintaining a positive, comfortable educational environment. This is a very challenging balance to maintain. I have experienced both ends of the security spectrum personally. I have worked in schools with no security, unlocked doors, unfettered access to the building, and no security plans or drills. I have also worked in a school district that had its own police force and TSA-like secure entrances complete with armed guards, bag searches, and metal detectors, along with robust security plans and regular “active shooter” drills. My personal belief is that neither of these extremes is appropriate for our schools. I believe in a balance that implements reasonable security measures while maintaining a comfortable, academic environment for our students and staff.
We have a system-wide Safety Team that develops, reviews, and maintains our safety plans and protocols. This team, made up of various school employees, is responsible for making recommendations related to all areas of security and student safety. Creating and maintaining robust safety plans and protocols is quite time consuming, so we are exploring the possibility of adding a Safety Coordinator position in order to have an employee focused solely on this work. These conversations are ongoing, but if we decide to move forward with this addition, we would hope to have such a person in place by the start of the next school year.
Visitors to our schools know that we keep all of the entrances locked and visitors have to be “buzzed in” to access the building. They sign in at the front desk and are given a visitor “badge” if they are authorized to visit areas of the building other than the office. Only those with legitimate reason to be in our schools are allowed access, such as parents, visiting educators, and vendors with whom we have a working relationship. Over time, the fidelity with which this is implemented can waiver, so I will be reinforcing this protocol with our school leaders this week.
Our schools plan for all sorts of emergencies, including those where there is someone in the building intent on harming people. For such scenarios, we have traditionally not had system-wide drills that include students, due to our concerns about the psychological impact such drills have on our kids. However, I have asked our Safety Team to revisit that decision to ensure we are still comfortable with that stance.
In partnership with the City of Decatur Police Department, CSD has two School Resource Officers (SROs), Officers Damico and Edwards. SROs are police officers, employed by the police department, and assigned to our schools. Our SROs are present and available during each school day and at large school events. The SROs work closely with school administrators whenever any safety concerns arise, but perhaps most importantly, they develop many positive relationships with our students. In addition to the SROs assigned to our schools, the Decatur Police are always available on a moment’s notice, and we regularly benefit from their presence at school events. Anytime we have needed additional assistance from the police, they have responded remarkably quickly. It never hurts to reinforce and revisit these partnerships, so I have reached out to Decatur Police Chief Mike Booker to schedule a time for our leadership teams to get together again so that we can discuss any ways we can further improve our shared interests to ensure student safety.
Lastly, many people may not be aware that CSD employs social workers. In addition to the support provided by school counselors, our social workers meet with students and families and provide additional support where needed. Counselors, social workers, and other trusted adults can often spot signs of concerning behavior in a student prior to that student feeling the need to act out. These staff are an important part of our overall safety measures.
In response to the tragedy in Parkland, Florida, many folks are planning a national school walk-out on March 14th at 10:00 am. In an area that was so key to our nation’s civil rights movement, I recognize and respect the power and influence of civil disobedience. I also struggle with the idea of disrupting the school day and, as I understand the plans, putting our students in a much less safe position than that within the school building. I further recognize the concerns I have heard from many parents regarding the possibility that their child could be required to participate in such a walk-out.
We support a student’s right to non-disruptive protest and freedom of speech and will do what we can to support students interested in exercising those rights. It is not appropriate, however, for a school district to endorse any walk-out during the school day, and walk-outs are specifically prohibited in our Student Code of Conduct (SCC, https://goo.gl/dgfwDL), so our employees will not be participating in the walk-out as it is being advertised through social media. Because walk-outs are specifically prohibited in our SCC, administrators are duty bound to address them. Rule 25 of our SCC specifically prohibits, “acts which cause a disruption of the school environment . . . which may include but not be limited to . . . walk-outs.” It goes on to say, “in addition, encouraging, counseling, advising or inciting other students to participate in any of the above . . . is also prohibited.” The act of walking out of a class is itself disruptive and therefore subject to Rule 25. Any students encouraging others to walk-out would also be subject to Rule 25. Because this is at least a Level II offense, as stated in the SCC, the minimum consequence is three days of in-school suspension. However, the Level II language also states that, “consequences of a Level II disciplinary infraction may be reduced by the principal upon the successful completion of an appropriate program related to the nature of the offense.” An example of an “appropriate program” principals might consider is having a student write a persuasive letter to one of their elected representatives taking a position on an area of concern to the student. It is not appropriate to pre-determine any consequences that may or may not be faced by students who choose to walk-out or encourage others to do so, so any such consequences will be determined by school administrators consistent with the SCC. To be clear, however, as stated earlier, we support a student’s right to non-disruptive protest and freedom of speech and will do what we can to support students interested in exercising those rights.
We have many adults who are well versed in the workings of our state and federal government, and I am confident they would be pleased to help concerned students learn about how to interact with their elected representatives (https://goo.gl/fVi6Pm). Providing information to students about how our state and national laws are made and enforced–as we already do in several courses–could be expanded to other students who are interested in this knowledge but are not currently in the courses where it is taught.
Individual schools may choose to provide optional, age-appropriate activities during the time organizers have designated for the 17-minute walk-out or at another time that works better with the school’s daily schedule. That decision will be made by building leaders in consultation with their building leadership team and school leadership team (SLT). If a school chooses to host such an activity, it will be optional for students who wish to participate, it will be age-appropriate, and it will be academically focused.
I am confident that all leaders in our school district stand ready to help those students who are interested in creating change in this or other areas relevant to them. To the students who are interested in this, who are struggling with the events in Florida, or who just need someone to talk to, I encourage you to reach out to a trusted adult in your school so that we can provide whatever support you need.