This week, Washburn County Chief Deputy Mike Richter and Minong Police Chief Dennis Stuart, candidates for Washburn County Sheriff, share their views on school safety.

Per our first week's coin-flip, this week's question will first be answered by Washburn County Chief Deputy Mike Richter followed by Minong Police Chief Dennis Stuart's answer below that. 

*NOTE* We will not be doing a question next week. We will continue the following week, May 4th. 

Washburn County Chief Deputy Mike Richter

DrydenWire: Describe your views on what you think schools should do regarding school safety.

Mike Richter: All four school districts in Washburn County are in a good place regarding school safety. The schools historically have had administrations that took the safety of their students very seriously and have been proactive in both staff training, facility improvements and student drills. For the past 15 years, the Washburn County Sheriff’s Office has been engaged with all four school districts in assisting with development of safety plans. During the early years of plan development and training, numerous problems and weaknesses were identified and addressed. Two of the schools had phone systems that would not allow direct dialing 911.  In two of the schools, it was determined that many of the classroom doors required staff to lock the door from the outside of the room, exposing them to a potential threat. Exterior doors at some of the schools were found to be unsecured or, in one instance, taped over one of the latches. During the early stages of school safety planning, as these weaknesses were identified, corrective actions were taken and policies were enhanced. Fifteen years later, all four school districts have comprehensive and well-developed plans in place. 

In discussing school safety, the reasonable first topic would be to “Harden the target” through design and improved materials to make the facility resistant to intruders. The basic foundation of facility design should start with minimizing the points of access used to enter the school.  At the access points, shatter-proof glass should be implemented and/or high quality steel doors and locks should be installed. Video and audio security equipment should be utilized to pre-screen those requesting access to the school during normal school hours. Security measures should be taken to monitor parking areas or delivery points in order to detect unusual or suspicious activity. The common sense side of school safety is to keep potential threats outside of the building, and all measures should be exhausted to achieve this goal.

Safety planning on the interior of the schools should include devices like the “Just in Kase” device, which can be easily deployed into each classroom door and effectively prevent entry into the room. These devices are relatively inexpensive and not easily defeated. Web-based surveillance equipment should be installed to monitor activity within the school, and can be authorized to be accessed by law enforcement remotely. Physical barrier systems should be utilized during off-school hours to prevent unnecessary access to critical points in the school. Many schools without such barricades potentially allow visitors free access to the entire building while special events at the school are being held. 

Continually updating staff training should be paramount in creating a safer school environment. It is important for staff to thoroughly understand the safety plan and the philosophy behind it. It is not sufficient to train in the process without explaining the reasons why. The key part of staff training is to establish an open dialogue where the process can be questioned and feedback is readily accepted. Some of the best information regarding weaknesses or vulnerabilities in a plan can be learned from those most familiar with the facility and the students. Pre-planned roles and responsibilities during a time of crisis will prepare staff for high-stress situations. This is the area where platforms like ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) teach school staff to sequentially go through a protocol of decision making, to provide for the best possible outcome during an active threat situation. As discussed earlier, it is imperative that staff understands the factors that would trigger progression from the lock-down, counter, or evacuate stages. An active threat in a school setting is unique in that one adult may be responsible for the safety and well-being of 30 students. Mental, physical and developmental diversity within a classroom can make decisions placed on teachers that much more challenging. As with any plan, following the classroom training there should be drills or exercises that test the procedures that have been trained. These live exercises are critical in identifying vulnerabilities in a safety plan. It was only after we physically tried to dial a classroom phone that it was determined 911 could not be accessed without first establishing an outside line. Locking mechanism deficiencies will only be identified by physically putting a key in the lock. 

Careful consideration should be given when conducting training of the student body. It should be recognized that there is a real concern that a student trained in active threat drills could ultimately be the active threat someday. Student training should consist only of the components that are necessary for the student to successfully complete the drill. Training should also be conducted in an age-appropriate manner geared to the age of the student, to instill confidence rather than fear.

It is with great anticipation that I look toward The Sheriff’s Office Juvenile Officer returning to the schools later this year. Historically The Sheriff’s Office has delivered anti-drug programs and assisted in the school safety plans. Without a doubt during the last couple of years without our juvenile officer, our contact with the schools has declined. Our juvenile officer will rejuvenate those relationships, and at the request of several schools expand programming to include computer safety classes and more in-depth anti-drug curriculum. The juvenile officer has been instrumental in developing comprehensive evacuation and reunification plans. As your next Sheriff, I intend to be more involved in serving and assisting the school districts in their various needs. Increased communication with our schools will help us to provide future programming for our kids.  

When developing safer schools, we must look at some of the causes of school violence. Training and a different approach must be taken as a community to reduce some of the primary contributing factors triggering school violence. The common profile of a school shooter contains: loner, was bullied, levels of mental health issues, preoccupation with violent videos, music, or games.

As a society, we must recognize the fact that we are desensitizing our children to extreme violence. The only way to control the influence through games and video is through educated parenting that realizes the damage these media platforms are causing. 

Bullying and labeling individuals is a major contributor to school violence. Compassion training and learning to respect each other as individuals are paramount to get to the root causes of hate and anger-driven rages. We must offer these course opportunities in the regular class curriculum, and enhance the messaging through motivational presentations to assemblies.

Training to school staff and the student body should teach the recognition of danger signs or signals. Most often in post-violence investigations, individuals observed signs of escalating anger and anxiety. Training can help build confidence that the signs being observed are real and need to be reported. Reporting processes must be developed to be simple and confidential. If either students or staff sees danger signs, they must have the knowledge of where and how to report it.

I believe that currently we, as a nation and a community, are engaging in good discussion right now regarding school safety issues. The increase in school violence has shown a spotlight on the problems and thus has many great minds working on solutions. One caution is that real solutions will not be achieved behind partisan political lines. Our community, as well as the entire country, needs to pull together to make our schools a safe place to learn. I can’t think of anything more important to invest in than our children’s safety! 

Minong Police Chief Dennis Stuart

DrydenWire: Describe your views on what you think schools should do regarding school safety.

Dennis Stuart: All children should grow up free from fear and violence. Fortunately, most of America’s children do. But there are far too many schools and neighborhoods where fear and violence are part of a child’s daily life. This is unacceptable.

As a Nation we have seen the heartbreaking images on the news of children running from schools after an active threat. Often, they were unsuspecting and unprepared. There is much debate about if new gun laws would help, I do not have all the answers on how to make sure these tragedies do not ever happen again. I do however have some ideas on how to keep our children safer.

I have spent many hours training citizens on what to do during active threat situations. One of the things that schools can do is ALICE training.   ALICE stands for Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Evacuate or run-hide-fight. This is a training that I believe saves lives. It gives students and educators options on what they can do in the first few minutes that make all the difference in surviving. No matter how fast law enforcement tries, they will not make it there in those first precious minutes when the decisions made can make a dramatic difference.   

In the past 3 ½ years, I have visited and trained hundreds of people in Washburn county. I have been to all of the school districts. Being prepared with a comprehensive school safety and security plan for each building, which should be on file with the law enforcement and fire departments in its jurisdiction, makes the difference. I would encourage all schools in the county to provide building schematics, blueprints and photos to be on file with law enforcement in case emergency response is needed. I would also recommend that all new teachers, substitute teachers, secretaries, custodians and bus drivers all have active threat training. The first and best line of defense is a well trained, highly alert school staff and student body. 

Schools also should ensure that all external doors are shut and locked so no one can get in without being properly identified and permitted entry. Doors and windows should be numbered so emergency responders can respond locations within school buildings more quickly. I would suggest that schools look into a door locking defense system for classroom doors in the event  they become compromised, as well as some type of safety & security window film so windows are not shattered, but held together and ultimately slowing the threat. I would further recommend that during sporting events, concerts, ceremonies and any other function after school, all hallways be locked down and no access allowed. Another recommendation is to ensure that they have radio communications and each room has the ability to notify the school if an active threat occurs.

Emergencies take many forms. Safe schools include looking at both active threats as well as non-active threats such as bullying and drug sales.  I believe that the Juvenile Deputy position is imperative. School safety requires interagency cooperation with the Juvenile Deputy to help educate and interact with staff and students. As Sheriff I would also have my Patrol Deputies stop in at the schools and during extracurricular activities to have law enforcement presence. I would like to see the K-9 perform locker searches more often to aid in the deterrence of drug sales and possession in the schools.  

Another option that I would look at is security cameras linked to the dispatch center. Our schools already have cameras in place throughout the schools. Why not use the technology that is already in place and have it set up to live feed to the dispatch center during an active threat? This would give law enforcement eyes inside the school and would help to locate and end the threat quickly. 

We also should be training Deputies, Officers and EMS at each school facility. If you have no idea what a school looks like on the inside it is difficult to know how to navigate in an emergency. Having all Law Enforcement familiar with each school will save lives during an active threat and ensure that Law Enforcement will be better prepared when they arrive on scene.

Our educators have the vital job of not only educating our children but caring for them while they are at school. Teachers are on the front line when dealing with children with mental health needs. We need to help school staff identify and find the necessary resources to support students suffering with mental health needs. This is where community partnerships become necessary.  Without the help of mental health systems, churches, and community we can not get a firm grasp on the issue. Without these community partnerships children in need of intervention fall through the cracks. Developing close partnerships between schools, Law Enforcement and EMS is important, as is ensuring that these services are working collaboratively and have a solid knowledge of procedure if an active threat situation occurs. As the Sheriff I will ensure that these partnerships are in place and that there is training available for all who need it. I will continue my work as in the past training and presenting to schools, businesses, and churches. This has been important to me and it will remain a priority if elected. 

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