Protecting & Empowering Ourselves
After every threat of school violence, whether it happens locally or nationally, I know that students, staff, parents, and community stakeholders struggle. Many live with fear and anxiety thinking about the possibility of violence happening in our community and to our children. While schools remain the safest place for our children to spend time, there are no guarantees that violence will never happen in any school in the country. Therefore, we must empower ourselves to prevent and/or protect against such events occurring here.
Parents, please continue to talk to your kids about how to stay safe and keep others safe. Make sure they know to talk to you or to another trusted adult if they see or hear anything that is concerning or threatening. Help them to understand the ramifications of sharing information about these matters through the media or social media. If your child feels anxious or fearful about coming to school, encourage them to talk about it; it is a normal reaction and talking about it helps far more than keeping it bottled up. This resource from the National Association of School Psychologists can help parents and teachers with talking points for these types of conversations with students.
Staff, please continue to be vigilant as well. Encourage students to report bullying, threats, or anything that just doesn’t seem quite right. Please also encourage students and colleagues to take our emergency drills seriously. We all must know and practice the appropriate protocols for any given situation; this is how we will keep students and ourselves as safe as possible under the circumstances.
School safety is everyone’s job. It is a topic that we at WFPS talk about more often than people realize…and more often than we would perhaps like. It does not take an incident or even a threat for school staff to begin conversations about best practices, but those situations do remind us of the importance of those conversations. They also remind us of how we are stronger together, and of how an informed community is better able to respond when disaster strikes. Therefore, I would like to take this opportunity to share with our school community about the culture of school safety here at WFPS.
West Fargo Public Schools has participated in Cass-Clay Unified School Response (CCUSR), a community collaborative between every school district and first responder agency in Cass and Clay Counties, since 2006. The creation of CCUSR was truly the first major step our district, and others in the area, took in regard to school safety. CCUSR provides our district with a network of professionals who work together to share information, learn from each other’s experiences, and identify ways to empower staff to achieve an even greater level of safety and security in our schools. CCUSR also provides us with “best practice” resources, developed by a working group comprised of individuals representing multiple professional disciplines and jurisdictions in our two counties.
We are also fortunate to have a partnership with the West Fargo Police Department that has provided us with a School Resource Officer program since 2005. This program introduces a law enforcement officer into the educational environment of schools. We currently have seven SROs that come to work every day in our district: one each at Cheney Middle School, Liberty Middle School, Sheyenne High School, and West Fargo High School; two officers for all district elementary schools; and one Sergeant that helps to oversee the program. Goals of the SRO program are to provide safe learning environments in our district’s schools, provide valuable resources to school staff, foster positive relationships with youth, and develop strategies to resolve problems affecting youth with the objective of protecting every child so they can reach their fullest potential.
Beginning in 2012, the district embarked on a series of security upgrades. A few of those more notable items include:
- The School Board approved a staff position to manage the school safety portfolio.
- Banks of high-quality radios were purchased for each school. These radios not only allow school personnel to communicate with one another even after power and cell service goes down, but they also allow us to connect with transportation services, law enforcement, and the fire department.
- LobbyGuard visitor management systems were installed at each main office. This system allows us to monitor more closely who comes to our schools and for what purpose.
- Entrances at each school were renovated to either require traffic to be funneled through the main office, or stopped in a vestibule until office personnel could buzz them in. We also began locking all of the exterior doors once school began for the day, to better control traffic in and out of the building. Each door is connected to a panel in the main office that indicates when a door is opened. Finally, we installed access points at key entrances where staff and first responders could access the building by swiping a fob.
- Each main office is equipped with a panic button that, once pushed, silently activates a call to 911.
- Digital camera systems exist at all district facilities. These cameras allow us to not only monitor activities, but also provide a means of investigation after an incident.
- Blue light systems are also in use at our two middle schools and two high schools. These systems serve as a visual indicator to those both inside and outside the building that the school is in crisis. During a lockdown, the blue light system is activated, which turns on blue lights in high-noise and high-traffic parts of the building, as well as at key entrance points so additional people do not enter a potentially dangerous situation.
In addition to the more tangible items described above, West Fargo Public Schools has also invested in its people. We employ the BERT (building emergency response team) model in our district, which allows us to train a team of people at each building to help lead school safety and security efforts with their own students and staff.
Another critical piece of our school safety plan is our ability and dedication to exercise our protocols, so our responses can be as practiced as possible in the event of a real emergency. Every school in the district is required to complete a total of 10 drills each year in the areas of lockdown, tornado, fire, and shelter-in-place. WFPS also began full-scale exercises in 2014, which involves the evacuation of an entire school to a pre-determined reunification point, where we then act out reunifying students with parent actors. We have completed this exercise with one school per year and have our sixth school scheduled for April 2020.
While West Fargo Public Schools has done a lot related to school safety, it is a task that doesn’t really have a true endpoint. As our district considers how to spend the funds allocated for school safety in the September 2018 bond referendum, we will be engaging our community in discussions around the types of security-based capital improvements the district could/should consider. While no decisions have been made yet, items that rank highly on the list for consideration would be completing the blue light system installs for our elementary buildings, the addition of bullet-resistant film to windows and doors, addressing recommendations related to the walk zones surrounding our schools, and upgrading our radio system to remain in connection with our first responder agencies.
The support and interest from the community in what we're doing and could do to keep our kids safe has been unbelievable but is no less than I would expect from our WFPS community!