According to attendance records at West High, 100 to 150 students are absent each day. On Monday, Oct. 12, approximately 1,100 students didn’t attend their classes. The night before, an alleged threat circulated through social media that involved a student bringing a gun to school. All parents were notified via Blackboard Connect after West High Principal Gregg Shoultz and board members became aware of the concerns. This caused the Iowa City Community School District board to reprioritize their meeting on Oct. 13 to address communication and safety.
Before the meeting took place, the district policy stated that the district could only report substantiated threats to parents. At the meeting, the school board unanimously approved a rule that any threat made–verified or not–will be reported to the police and communicated to parents.
Within the first week, 15 threats were reported. In a report released by the school board, almost all of the threats reported came from elementary schools and some included descriptions such as “Student got mad at another student for not sharing a swing. Told other student would punch her in the face [sic].”
After a week, the school board decided this rule was unrealistic, and it was reevaluated. District policy now states that if the threat is not “immediate,” staff will report the threat to administration. According to Shoultz, factors in consideration are the age of the student, involvement of a weapon and totality of the circumstances. The administration will then decide, in conjunction with the police, whether or not it determines a threat to the community. Communication to parents will depend on the circumstances of the threat.
SCHOOL RESOURCE OFFICER
There are still many options up for debate on what more can be done to maintain a sense of safety and security in the district. Shoultz says that the school and the district have plans in place to increase safety.
“The big change that could happen, and there is no saying this is going to happen, but there is a pretty widespread support for a school resource officer (SRO). That is something that we pursued in the past, and it hasn’t happened. I think there will be another round where we can discuss this and find out what our funding options and opportunities are for having an SRO here,” Shoultz said.
A school resource officer is a law enforcement officer, but instead of focusing on crime in the community their main duty is to provide security in the school environment. According to Shoultz, students felt more secure when a law enforcement officer was in the building.
“Reports we have from last week are that students felt reassured by the presence of an officer on campus, they felt like students would be less likely to offend and have physical conflicts here at school,” Shoultz said.
Anna Hitchcock ’18 agrees that students would be less likely to misbehave, but doesn’t think that justifies the need for an SRO.
“I feel safe without having a cop here,” Hitchcock said. “I just don’t like the idea of having one,”
Parents in the district are also voicing their opinion, and West High parent Lynette Jacoby is worried about schools becoming too dependent on SROs for taking disciplinary actions.
“It interferes with the education process and can wind up criminalizing youth that may have otherwise been disciplined within the school system,” Jacoby said.
In response to the interest in an SRO for the ICCSD, the district sought out information from other schools that have an SRO.
The Davenport Community School District currently has two school resource officers. According to Executive Director Robert G. Scott, issues there are said to now be resolved before they reach the consequence point.
Principal of Ottumwa High School Mark Hanson stated in an email that an SRO was added in response to a murder on campus. There, the SRO supervises the cafeteria, gives presentations to staff, acts as a pseudo-counselor for students and enforces the law. The SRO is viewed by students as a regular staff member.
Reducing crime and ensuring safety is the primary goal of an SRO, and Shoultz hopes this will be acquired through a strong relationship between the officer and students.
“Having someone who knows how to work with police and has a good relationship with the students in the building and can help with our investigations, and hopefully just establish better interactions with adolescents and police, that would be our goal,” Shoultz said.
HANDLING A SITUATION
Before school started, teachers took part in a training program called ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter Evacuate). They experienced a mock attack which was put on using machines to create sound effects. Teachers also practiced different methods of communication while under an attack and what to do in such a situation.
Just a few years ago, if a school was under attack, the go-to solution would be to go under lockdown. After observing past school shootings, the new plan of action is to allow each teacher to decide what is best.
“You need to make your best judgement, not just to stay in one area and cower. You need to use all of your senses and any data you have … you’re going to do your best to keep [students] safe. If that means you see the shooter going away and you slip out a door that’s nearby, that’s fine … or if you say no, I’m going to lock this door, turn off the lights, get everybody quiet and if someone comes in the door we’re going to throw things at them, that’s what you do,” Shoultz said.
Blackboard Connect is an automated service that the district uses to send out mass emails and phone calls. Texting hasn’t been implemented yet due to the fact that some people may be charged for receiving SMS messages, and inputting the cell phone numbers of every parent has not been achieved yet.
Deciding what is worth communicating to parents is now left to administration in an effort to not have people perseverate the threats.
When a threat is communicated immediately, it can lead people to jump to conclusions without proper knowledge of what’s actually going on.
“People don’t have any way to evaluate the threat,” Shoultz said.
With the constant reporting of threats, another worry is that people will not take them seriously. When the boy cries wolf and there is actually a wolf, no one will be paying attention.
Communication with students is also changing. Students often have no personal connection with school personnel, thus creating negative opinions on personnel due to the grade they are given or the disciplinary actions against them.
“We have redoubled our efforts to make sure we have a contact person with every student. In the past we had teachers make one-to-one personal contact with students who had F’s, now we’ve included students who may struggle behaviorally,” Shoultz said.
BIG SCHOOL, BIG RESPONSIBILITY
In a school of over 2,000 with hallways built for 1,300, tensions are bound to rise.
“We changed already how we work with kids in the hallways. We’ve eliminated congregation in the hallways,” Shoultz said.
Congregation is far from being the only concern. Securing doorways to prevent outsiders from accessing the building without permission is another goal.
With 47 entryways in the building and an open campus, enforcing this would be difficult. Upperclassmen leave sporadically during their open hours and would need access from both the front and back parking lots during the day.
Due to the magnitude of the school, these issues will be laborious to ever fully control.
However, the administration, teachers, parents and students will continue to work collaboratively to make the school environment safer, despite the huge challenge. The hope is to maintain a tradition of excellence.
“What we will continue to do is be as vigilant as we possibly can, respond to every threat, and focus on education,” Shoultz said.