Students Take the Lead at Safety Summit

L-R: South Burlington Chief of Police Trevor Whipple, School Board Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald, SBPD School Resource Officer Kevin Grealis, SBPD Supervisor of Youth Services Dennis Ward, Superintendent David Young, Alex Escaja-Heiss and Arnel Husrefovic, student representatives to the school board and Rob Evans, school safety liason from Vermont’s Agency of Education.

In light of recent tragic events carried out in our nation’s schools, there’s no doubt that safety and security are a top priority for parents, students, and administrators. Although the South Burlington School District is always working to build upon its schools’ safety protocols, after the shooting that occurred in Parkland, Florida, it was decided a safety summit on associated topics would be an appropriate next step. The May 22 summit, organized by staff with the help of students, featured a panel of local experts along with small group discussions. Students had the opportunity to express their views around the tragedies that have been taking place throughout the country, and reflected on their own perspectives as students at SBHS. About 30 parents, students, residents, and staff gathered in the Tuttle Middle School cafeteria to listen and engage in dialogue.

Student representatives to the school board Alex Escaja-Heiss and Arnel Husrefovic kicked off the evening by introducing the panel which included South Burlington Chief of Police Trevor Whipple, School Board Chair Elizabeth Fitzgerald, Vermont’s Agency of Education School Safety Liason Rob Evans, South Burlington Police Department School Resource Officer (SRO) Kevin Grealis, South Burlington Police Department Supervisor of Youth Services Dennis Ward, and South Burlington Superintendent of Schools David Young.

Young identified safety as the district’s number one priority.He noted the presence of school resource officers, cameras inside and outside of schools, adjustments to lighting, access control, visitor badges, and having an emergency plan—in concert with the city— as only a few of the safety and security measures the district has in place. Crisis teams at each school meet regularly to review current practices, conduct staff trainings, and organize crisis drills. Young also stressed that if an event occurs, it can be easy to get caught up in initial reports, especially via social media and stressed that official district sources are the most reliable in terms of getting up to date information.

Next, Rob Evans discussed emergency planning. Evans is a parent of three and spent 23 years serving with the Vermont State Police before taking on his current role which specializes in campus security. Evans noted that school safety planning in Vermont dates back to 1999 and has evolved considerably since that time. Vermont now has a school safety center and conducts behavioral health assessments. He added that Governor Phil Scott has also proposed $4 million in capital funding be devoted to school safety upgrades. If approved, each school in the state could apply for $25,000 in funding. The state has also received $1 million from the Department of Homeland Security for crisis response initiatives.

From a student perspective, Escaja-Heiss and Husrefovic spoke of the great job the district does of making students feel welcome, especially through clubs such as the Gender and Sexuality Alliance and the Student Diversity Union. Husrefovi said, “It’s important to know how students are feeling about everything that has been happening … there are lots of support systems in place.” He noted community-building events such as pep rallies and talent night.

Resident Dan Albrecht asked if privacy and HIPPA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) regulations hindered communications within the school. “If a student displays concerning behavior, what can be done? Do you have the ability to remove a student before they become a problem?” he asked.

South Burlington High School (SBHS) Principal Patrick Burke addressed Albrecht’s concerns saying, “nobody is sitting on information due to HIPPA concerns … if an individual is causing harm to self or others, a teacher will push the concerning information to a school counselor. The student will be out of school until a mental health risk assessment takes place and that is a condition of returning to school. The student may need a therapeutic environment instead, which the school is not.” Burke explained that the systems in place, especially with the relationships the SROs build with both students and their families, has been tremendously helpful in this regard since they know the students so well.

Engaging and candid roundtable discussions followed as five to six participants gathered around each table to respond to prompts facilitated by SBHS students. Questions included, “What makes you feel safe as a student parent/guardian or community member when you are in or around the school community? What is the right balance between school climate, safety, and security?” and “Why do you think school violence happens and what are the factors involved?”

The conversations at this writer’s table, which included Superintendent Young and Chief Whipple, were robust. Young mentioned the importance of building positive relationships with self and others as a means of prevention and helping students connect to activities they enjoy. Young posited, “What can we be doing more of to create that positive energy?” Social media was also mentioned as an avenue that has been touted for bringing people together, but in fact can be quite isolating and can result in the erosion of relationships.

Student Nat Julow spoke about the school’s crisis drills and that when the lockdowns occurred last year, students thought they were in a drill situation until information began coming in on their phones via social media, which “made people panic more,” Julow said. He mentioned that in the future, if would be helpful to give students a rundown of what to expect from an event response perspective. For example, Julow said telling students in advance that they will be loaded onto buses and accompanied by police officers, would help prepare them emotionally. Young agreed that events like this can bring up trauma for certain students and staff which circles back to the necessity of having supportive relationships established in advance.

The important role that school resource officers (SRO) play in South Burlington schools was also touted. The police officers run programming at the schools, such as D.A.R.E., but they also spend time getting to know students on a daily basis, so they know when something seems “off.” Because the SROs are embedded in the school, they use school protocols when addressing a situation as opposed to using a police response.

Young stressed that the district strives to create an environment that is both welcoming and exciting to learn in but also has the right measures of safety. Presently, he feels the district has a good balance of security procedures in place.

As the evening drew to a close, there seemed to be consensus that the conversations were valuable and could provide a springboard for further dialogue on other topics as well. The summit was also recorded by RETN, so if you missed it, you can tune in then provide your feedback at Click on the SBSD Safety Summit feedback link under District News.

SOURCE: Corey Burdick, Correspondent

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