Communication concerns at centerstage in Chief Sealth IHS – Denny IMS student-safety meeting

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(Slide shown toward start of meeting)

By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor

One big word surfaced over and over again during last night’s meeting about student safety at Chief Sealth International High School and Denny International Middle School:

Communication.

Even more than what’s happened and what’s been done about it, the concerns focused on getting information about incidents – long before the classic “letter sent home at day’s end.”

Administrators acknowledged “lessons learned,” particularly in the case of January’s threats/rumors/social-media situation, as parents detailed the frustration and fear of knowing that rumors of violence were circulating but not getting any messages from the school, reassuring or otherwise.

Here’s how the meeting unfolded:

The Sealth library was the setting, with dozens of parents joined by Seattle Public Schools and Seattle Police representatives. They heard first from assistant superintendent Pegi McEvoy, explaining the district’s emergency planning and communications protocols.

“Emergency plans are never done,” she noted – as in, always a work in progress. She said that emergency planning for schools dates back to about 2008, and showed a circle of prevention/mitigation, preparedness, recovery, and response. “And then we had Sandy Hook,” she continued, showing a new phase of planning, adding “protection” to the continuum. “So you’ll start to see some different language and different tools coming out from the schools.”

There’s an “All-Hazard Plan” dealing with all manner of types of incidents, and they’re not made public because “if we told all our kids where we were evacuating in response to an incident, it actually may put them at risk.” They’re reviewed every few years – and the cycle is starting this year, working with SPD and SFD and the Emergency Operations Center.

“So what do we do in an emergency? … Really only six courses of action: Change in hours … evacuation … relocation … reverse evacuation .. shelter in place … lock down” The latter is described as “exterior doors locked, interior doors locked, limit visual contact” – during which time “the police go door to door” to make sure it’s safe for students to get back to normal.; shelter in place, as “stay put inside” and “limit and control ingress/egress.”

When do you get information from the district? Notices might come directly from the District Communications office. Re: social media, the district uses Twitter “on a situation and case by case basis. It is not intended to replace direct communications to families via phone calls and e-mails.” The district can’t use “School Messenger” robocalls right now because of a Federal Communications Commission edict, McEvoy said.

She went through a list of software the schools use – most interesting was one through which, she said, SPD sends automated information that covers what’s happening for a half-mile around any school, so that if something is happening, the school knows about it, security monitors it, and they can decide what to do about it.

Next, SPD Southwest Precinct commander Capt. Pierre Davis, who said they’ve been working for years to get to this point where the district and SPD are working together.

They can’t inform everyone on a one-on-one basis immediately, but the information flow is vastly improved. He said it’s a priority for Chief Kathleen O’Toole to have SPD working closely with schools. He said SPD just had a meeting with SPS Superintendent Dr. Larry Nyland and are making some changes in plans, to get kids to and from school safely, to help parents understand what’s being done to keep their kids safe, “to cut the angst down.”

When things happen inside the school, “parents are sometimes the last to know,” Capt. Davis acknowledges, so they are trying to get kids to know it’s OK to let them know what’s going on. They have put together a team of officers to go into the schools and talk with the Youth Ambassadors, something happening primarily at Denny right now, he said. The program was launched toward the end of last year; you might recall our coverage of O’Toole’s visit last June, which was a response to an invitation from Denny students, who asked her for more help staying safe:

(June 2015 WSB photo)
Denny principal Jeff Clark interjected, at that point, that it’s been a “positive partnership” between the school and SPD.

An attendee said she had noticed more police presence around the schools’ shared campus lately; Capt. Davis said they beef it up when they notice “issues.” And he confirmed in response to another question that they increase surveillance around schools at opening/closing time when, again, there’s an “issue.” This might include the presence of their new Mobile Precinct.

The district’s executive director of schools for this area, Israel Vela, added that the principals of Sealth and Denny stay in close contact with each other, and with him.

But, an attendee said at that point, while the district might think it’s communicating with parents, “believe me, you’re not communicating.” Hearing fragments of information about something that might be happening, then contacting a school and getting a reply that “the school is operating, it’s on shelter in place,” but no other details, was not reassuring: “I don’t understand any of that (terminology). … It’s really scary and really frustrating. … There’s so much information that we’re not getting, and it makes me really frustrated.”

A Family Engagement Action Team is working on communication issues, it was pointed out.

Then School Board director Leslie Harris – a Sealth parent until last year – spoke: “Given the incidents that happened in January and February – as your school board director I’m here for you – Assistant Superintendent McEvoy is probably the most responsive person at (school district headquarters)” and had a meeting “with the players” shortly after the incidents. “Please come prepared to offer assistance, services, and ideas,” she exhorted. (The incidents early in the year were a major topic at her first community-conversation meeting, which we covered.)

One woman said she wants to know that incidents are being taken care of and is disturbed to read about them before a message goes home. Capt. Davis tried to assure her that police are responsive: “There’s not an incident that the Seattle Police Department is part of that we’re going to turn a blind eye.”

Another parent said, “It’s a little alarming … from my standpoint, it seems like from backpack stealing to iPhone stealing to guns, I think kids and parents’ anxiety level goes down if they see someone in uniform – to the extent you have the resources (to have a presence).”

And from another parent – they want to have police “on speed dial.” “For me, the problem isn’t the police – I need to know because it’s my kid and I have the right to know.” She wanted to know if police need to be invited into the building, or if they are able to come in randomly.

What’s the underlying issue behind incidents? one woman asked.

“There is an underlying gang issue out there,” acknowledged Capt. Davis. People might be stealing backpacks for quick drug money, for example.

Asked where stats can be accessed, he pointed people to the Crime Dashboard on the SPD site, and mentioned neighborhood micropolicing plans, worked on in tandem with the Seattle University research intern with whom they’ve been working. And they’re intending to revisit neighborhoods to see if it’s working. He said community input is key.

City Councilmember Lisa Herbold spoke up from the audience at this point, noting that she’s an SPS grandparent and interested in hearing about the issues.

What about metal detectors in schools? asked one attendee. Another very quickly says she wouldn’t want her kid to go through a metal detector.

And school board director Harris says people need to have their friends in Eastern Washington ask their legislators why they aren’t voting for full school funding.

Then a woman mentions a threat that happened recently – her older daughter heard about it in social media, “As a parent, what should I do?” There was no easy answer to that question.

Principals Fraser-Hammer and Clark spoke – with the backdrop of the incident that happened earlier in the day at Denny, and how they were communicating about “what’s going to be in that letter.” (At day’s end, we received and published the letters that went home.)

Executive director Vela talked about the district’s language line, which is in place at Sealth and Denny, so that they can communicate in many more languages.

At that point, Fraser-Hammer talked about the now-notorious Facebook post incident a couple months ago, and the letter/robocall that finally emerged later in the day, saying “that the threat was not viable.” She said, “We’re trying to get the communication, build the systems so that we can work together. We cannot do it all alone.”

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She talked about rules that lead “those who are there for the wrong reasons” to stand out, such as those who might hang out in the halls after school – “we’re trying to do all these proactive things, so that your kids … feel they are going to be in a protected environment.” She said they are trying to create an atmosphere where kids will come and tell them what’s going on. “We are trying again now to do the same thing with the community. The key is not just us, with the students, with the parents, because when things happen outside the campus, it affects what happens inside, too.” She said that in recent years they’ve reduced the “negative elements” away from “around the school” so that “kids can come to school and be safe.”

When there is an incident, she said, they work to make sure the student is safe and that the issue is dealt with, coordinating with security. “Oftentimes you will find that I cannot sit down to communicate with parents – so I rely on (the district communications office) – when the situation is all resolved, we sit down.”

It was mentioned at several points, from parents and administrators, that incidents are often reported on WSB before the district has communicated anything to parents. (Later in the meeting, director Harris offered us a few minutes to explain that this is not because police are funneling us information first – as we explained, we cover the news because it’s our job, including finding out why, for example, police or firefighters are at a local school – we get the information either by going to the school to ask police about what’s happening, or by trying to contact them, usually through the media-relations office – and we seek information from the district, too, including that in our reports.)

Fraser-Hammer continued that when it’s an imminent threat, you want to make sure everyone is secured. “But we’re also going to continue wth operations at the school – and we have to make the decision quickly, we announce it to the school, and then we continue.”

“So when (something like the Facebook post incident) happens – what do we do?” asked one parent. (That was an incident in which we reported quite gingerly, as we also mentioned – we heard about it the night before and anguished parents contacted us trying to find out what we knew, but it was a post about a rumor and we generally don’t report rumors – we finally reported something the next morning when the school district acknowledged it had been investigating.) “What’s now the procedure?”

Fraser-Hammer said, “We take all threats seriously – I was contacted, police were contacted, and what we have learned is that … communication (is needed). What is routine for us is not routine for parents.” She said she and the police considered it routine – and that’s why they didn’t communicate back to parents.

McEvoy was asked about lessons learned, and talked about how they evaluate. In this case, they felt they had enough information.

But the parent recapped, “so what do we do? How do we make decisions to send our children or not send our children? What’s the best course for our families?”

Another woman said, “I didn’t know anything about this and I sent my kid – the school didn’t notify us – and the families who chose to keep their kids home, they were told their absences would not be excused.”

And it was mentioned that it all started with a parent who felt he had a concern that wasn’t addressed – so he posted, and that was picked up like lightning from the students.

McEvoy said, “What I’m hearing is that the more information we can give you sooner.”

“You guys know you’re handling it – we don’t.”

“We’ll tell you if it’s not safe to come to school,” McEvoy promised.

“If that should happen again, kids shouldn’t have to go to school, worried – there should be some flexibility,” parents said.

What the school considers a timely fashion is different from what parents might consider it.

Another woman said, “I appreciate the letter at the end of the day.”

But – the information needs to go out earlier.

“The relationship needs to be between the parents, the school district, the police,” a woman who spoke earlier. She said she had no clue that they had been trained in various emergency services. “Start with the step that make sure we know. … I don’t even know what you guys told my daughter about sheltering in place.”

Denny Principal Clark: “Safety is always our top priority. … it’s also about relationship-building.” He added that “to have a positive relationship with the police is super helpful for everybody.”

Clark said it’s really important for the school to have a current, valid e-mail from everybody – especially since they can’t robocall. He explained that in the past year they’ve made sure that communications come from both principals. Elaborating on the incident earlier in the day, he said both students are “getting help” including counseling.

The text system was brought up at this point (if you are an SPS parent, check into that – it’s called TextAlert).

Clark said, “We’re briefing the front office staff on talking points, so that if parents do call, they’ll be able to tell them what’s going on – so that’s another option to make that phone call.”

Wrapping up the meeting, McEvoy said next steps include “refining emergency communications matrix,” increasing security staff, completing building-security analysis, completing Crime Prevention through Environmental Design – outlined on this slide:

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And Harris challenged everyone to gather again in a year and see how things have changed.

3 Replies to "Communication concerns at centerstage in Chief Sealth IHS - Denny IMS student-safety meeting"

  • Nicole Sipila March 10, 2016 (11:57 am)

    Thank you for your very good coverage of the meeting last night WSB!  We so appreciate you and all that your do for our community.

  • Trickycoolj March 10, 2016 (1:00 pm)

    How do so many not know what Shelter in Place means? My work place has threat training yearly, we have shelter in place signs in designated areas to do so. My schools all had shelter in place and evacuation threat plans in the late 1990s- early 2000s. Anyone who attended junior high or high scool post-Columbine is more than familiar with these terms. Why did SPS not introduce any of these plans until 2008? Now that’s what’s scary.

  • W March 10, 2016 (9:46 pm)

    Shelter in Place has definitely been around in SPS prior to 2008 (my 1st was in the 2003-04 school year elsewhere in SPS).   To say that “emergency planning for schools dates back to about 2008″ is a bit strange because obviously there was emergency planning prior to 2008 as well.    Maybe not in the current form, but to think there have been no emergency plans post-Columbine is simply incorrect although the bizarre quote could give that impression.   Ask teachers about how often emergency plan reviews were part of start-of-the-year meetings (maybe not to the level some would like but they were there).   The pre-2008 emergency/security plans likely didn’t have the current administrative/bureaucratic binder title but there were plans, shelter-in place and lock down procedures.


    My So Cal elementary school had several bomb threats in the 1970s.   Either that was just the threat du jour or we had a really twisted person in the neighborhood, but clearly there was a school emergency plan of some sort as we usually got about an extra hour on the playground while the police and fire trucks showed up with dogs to go through the building before an all-clear.  School have been dealing with security issues for a long time.

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