Safer schools for better learning

October 09, 2018
Staff member buzzes visitor into school

As students returned to school this fall, we’ve been working behind the scenes to make sure the schools and classrooms they enter each day are safer and more welcoming than ever before.

“We know students learn best when they feel safe and comfortable in their schools,” said Denise Pontrelli, superintendent. “Safety isn’t just about the physical spaces. It’s about meeting the social and emotional needs of our students as well. It’s about personal relationships with caring adults, support for students with emotional or behavioral challenges, and secure learning environments. We’re doing our best to meet all of these needs so our students are equipped for success.”

School safety and security is not a new topic, but it did rise to the forefront again in recent months following incidents occurring in schools across the nation. For the past several years we’ve been focused on making our schools safe places for our students to learn, and that work continues in earnest. As a district, we’re partnering with local agencies - from Washington County’s Department of Public Safety and Sheriff’s Office to mental health providers like Family Means and Youth Services Bureau - to make our schools safer for students from the inside out. Together, we’re focusing on three main areas: Physical spaces, prevention, and response.

Here’s a summary of what’s underway in each of these areas:

Physical Spaces

Stillwater Area Public Schools has been leading the way in safety and security efforts for nearly a decade. The district received a federal Readiness Emergency Management grant in 2011 that helped to establish an overarching emergency response plan, and provide training and resources for staff. In 2013 voters in the district approved a levy which, in part, provided funds to create secure entrances in all of our buildings and install video intercom systems that allow staff to see who is outside before they buzz them in to the building. The district’s emergency response plan, as well as its controlled entrance design, have served as models for other school districts in the state and around the country.

Over the summer,  district staff met with deputies from Washington County’s Sheriff’s Department to walk through our schools to conduct security audits. Deputies have provided district leaders with tips on what could be done to enhance building security. Some items on the list are simple and inexpensive - like trimming bushes and trees to improve sight lines. Other items for improvement - like replacing doors, installing more video intercoms and cameras, and installing alarms on exterior doors - would require a substantial financial investment. The district has applied for grants from the Minnesota Department of Education to help fund improvements to building security. We expect to find out in late September if we will be receiving any additional funding.

Here are a few new things in place this year:

  • Conducted Security Survey with Washington County Sheriff’s Office
  • Installed internal door at Rutherford  
  • Covered side door glass at Lily Lake
  • Changed building access protocols at high school to better manage who is coming and going from the building before and after school
  • Installing additional video intercom systems at the Pony Activity Center and the Early Childhood Family Center  

Prevention

We recognize that the key to preventing many crisis situations in our schools is to support our students who are struggling with social, emotional and behavioral challenges and mental illness. In the past several years we’ve invested a significant amount of time, energy and resources into supporting the needs of the whole child. Programs like Responsive Classroom in our elementary schools and a daily advisory program in middle schools are helping teachers create a sense of belonging for students, as well as foster the development of deeper relationships with and between students. A variety of strategies are also in place to help students develop emotional management skills, social skills and situational awareness. You can learn more about all of these programs online.

Here are a few new things coming to our schools this year:

  • Peer Helpers: A high school initiative to train student leaders to support classmates through a range of topics.
  • Student support groups: Working in collaboration with Family Means and The Youth Service Bureau to provide therapist for student support groups.
  • Make It OK campaign in secondary schools to decrease the stigma around mental health issues.
  • Mental health presentations and trainings:  Local and national experts will be presenting information  and providing trainings on mental health topics and ways to work with our children.
  • Improved communication: Being more intentional in how we communicate and partner with families when we discuss mental health and wellness topics at school, and providing easy to access resources available in our community.  
  • Threat assessments, which teaches staff to recognize and appropriately respond to students who exhibit concerning behaviors.

Response

Should a crisis occur within our school community, staff must also know how to respond quickly and effectively. Each year our staff and students take part in drills for things like evacuations, lockdowns and tornados. Our schools also have Building Emergency Response Teams that meet throughout the year to review safety practices and coordinate building plans.

This year we’re planning for even more training and staff development to help our staff members understand their role in an emergency situation, as well as in the aftermath of a crisis. We’ve partnered with Washington County’s Emergency Management Department, and are reaching out to neighboring district’s to review and functionalize recovery plans - with a focus on how to reunify parents and students in the event of an evacuation at a building.

Here are a couple of new things in place this year:

  • Enhanced process for documenting and reporting instances of suspected bullying  
  • Table-top training for administrators, which allows them to consider an emergency scenario and “practice” their response
  • Partnering with Washington County Emergency Management Department to align our response with that of emergency responders

We all play a role in keeping our school safe. If you have concerns or wish to report an incident, please click on the See Something, Say Something button in the top banner of our website.