By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
Every year, the Chief Sealth International High School PTSA devotes one of its monthly meetings to school safety – talking about procedures, answering questions.
This year, the meeting was held off-campus at Neighborhood House in High Point, where about two dozen people gathered last Wednesday night, including faculty, parents, district managers, and even elected officials with past and future Sealth students in their families.
Teacher Susie Clark organized the meeting and introduced Sealth principal Aida Fraser-Hammer. Safety is about being “prepared to respond to the unthinkable crisis,” the principal said, and about being able to “react to unexpected events in ways that avoid panic and maintain an atmosphere of calmness.”
Ultimately, she added, everyone is accountable for safety – including Sealth’s 1,060 students, their parents/guardians, and community members. But for staff, it’s a continuous job, and she detailed their numbers:
Principal Fraser-Hammer showed the six courses of action in case of emergency – including “shelter in place” (stay put inside, limit/control ingress/egress) and “lockdown” (exterior and interior doors locked, limit visual contact, close windows, etc.). She said she’s aware it’s frightening for parents to hear the school’s in one of the above; lockdown means there is an “immediate and imminent threat to our students” – could be violence in the community, or even on the campus. SIP means the building is secured but they feel it’s safe inside so “business as usual” seems OK. “Teachers can continue to teach, lights can stay on,” etc.
How can parents help? “Don’t panic” and don’t come to the school, because you might “get in the way.”
At that point Fraser-Hammer was asked about the communication process. “We do have an alert system,” she said – you can sign up online for emergency alerts. News media also would have emergency information, as would the district’s Twitter feed (@seapubschools). Priority #1 is keeping students/staff safe; priority #2, “reunification” if necessary.
At that point, the police in attendance at the meeting had to leave to respond to the shooting of a 16-year-old boy in South Park; the discussion continued with staff and parents.
The principal was asked by a staff member how they handle staff getting information from students who trust them, as they try to help those students avoid doing “stupid things that can hurt them.” Fraser-Hammer acknowledged the importance of proactivity.
The person who asked talked about a security person from years ago working with youth in a position of mutual respect.
A longtime educator said that administrators make the most impact when they openly acknowledge problems rather than trying to “do PR” and “hush (problems) up.” He said four students had been removed from campus “as a result of recent incidents” and he hadn’t known about the emergency suspension of one of them, so when that student showed up, he wasn’t aware the student shouldn’t have. He voiced concern about whether the school has “a plan” to deal with potential future problems. And he expressed love for the students.
Fraser-Hammer said there were circumstances of which the educator might not be aware, and affirmed that “we all love those kids” – but that action had to be taken because the greater responsibility is to the many, not the few. In response to a later question, she said she could not go into specifics, but that the four students were “excluded,” not expelled. “An exclusion is an emergency (suspension)” when there’s a safety concern, she explained.
Another staff member requested more, clearer communication.
That also factored into the responses to the next questions, which involved before- and after-school athletics events and practices. One parent wondered about security for before- and after-school athletics, and what the policy would be if a student was dismissed from an athletic activity and sent home early without notification. Fraser-Hammer asked him to talk with her afterward. Another parent later asked about supervision policies if students are expected to be at school early. And yet another said that consistent communication from coaches is important.
What happens if students encounter a problem on the way to school or returning from lunch, as happened last October? – The policy is to call police as soon as a student tells them about something like that, Fraser-Hammer said: “We are very, very, very happy when students follow that practice.”
And parents reiterated that they want consistent contact if/when something is going on.
Jeff Clark, in his 13th year as principal of adjacent Denny International Middle School, was asked if he had anything to add. He said that Denny and Sealth have to be in “lockstep” regarding policies and happenings. He also said that Denny has MTSS – “multi-tiered systems of support” – to recognize different challenges that each student faces; some need more support than others. That also involves watching EWI – “early warning indicators” – which he said can show signs that might affect their success (attendance problems, for example) and lead them to create a plan. This is not always about kids who “may obviously need help,” he elaborated – some may be quietly facing challenges. A staffer who’s a member of Denny’s EWI team said they are “constantly reviewing … week by week,” including new information from teachers.
Seattle School Board president Leslie Harris, mom of a Sealth graduate, spoke at that point. She noted that staff have access to a tool that was funded and rolled out starting this year to help them with that kind of tracking. She also said the Wednesday afternoon teacher/staff collaborative time made possible by the regular early dismissals is important too. And she said principals are at district HQ monthly to get support and to talk about what’s working and what can be shared. “It makes no sense for 104 schools to be doing their own thing.” She said she has gone to sit in and listen to this work on occasion.
One of the staffers who had raised issues earlier said that they need help in dealing with real-world issues that spill into the classroom. Harris said that rather than overpaying consultants for one-off training, what they are doing now is “high-touch.” The staffer said they need to know, for example, “how to deal with gang(-related issues).” At that point, Denny principal Clark talked about restorative justice – “kids need to learn skills, work things out with each other … understanding impacts.” That could mean a talking circle after something happens. “That sounds really nice,” said the staffer, “but when you are dealing with certain things such as a gang issue … a huddle’s not going to work … kumbaya is not going to work.”
A parent who said she has a student at Sealth and another at Denny wanted to know what the biggest issues are. Fraser-Hammer said it’s social media – students might use it to insult each other, and/or brag. “Typical high-school stuff,” maybe. Rumors are usually worse than reality, another person noted.
Another parent despaired that the “community” might have the wrong impression about Sealth, dating back to trouble that’s long in the past, because of the occasional incidents, when in reality, there’s not really much going on.
“I don’t think anybody doesn’t feel safe,” the staffer acknowledged. “But there are things that can be prevented.”
“How can we keep our ears open, how can we get even more information,” said one staffer.
Another teacher spoke, saying the first thing she thinks about the school is great staff and great students. And yes, “some things happen within our communities that are concerning … and a lot has to do with relationships.” She noted how much pressure kids are under in any event: “Growing up is hard work.” The teachers “love your kids.”
That’s what the other staffer agreed. She just wants to be sure more can be done.
And yet another affirmed that it’s a very safe place – just a handful of students with “serious issues” out of more than 1,000. Those kids “are our kids,” he stressed. Including those who were excluded – there has to be a way for them to be “part of the solution. … I want to be able to see them contribute what they want to our community.”
Speaking next was the executive director of schools Sarah Pritchett, who spoke to the type of training that principals get. She also said they look at SPS policies that might be “barriers to our students, barriers to our community.” She said that she’s new to this area of the district, and is “encouraged by the conversation and dedication I have seen.” She also said she welcomes parental involvement to help troubleshoot, and said she wonders, “how do we authentically involve the community?” She also said the district used to be very top-down but is working to improve that.
Invited to speak for a moment was City Councilmember Lisa Herbold – who attends this meeting every year, and noted this time that she is a “Denny grandma” hoping soon to be a “Sealth grandma.” She said that she heard everyone striving for the same thing – more tactics for proactivity, “a tactic-based strategy.”
A couple PTSA notes from the start of the meeting.
PTSA NEEDS OFFICERS … for the next two years.
AUCTION RESULTS: More than $30,000 was raised at this year’s event, with proceeds split between three school organizations.
For Chief Sealth IHS PTSA updates, check chiefsealthptsa.org.
P.S. The school has two events on the calendar this Thursday – tours for incoming 8th graders and their families in the morning, the annual Multicultural Night in the evening, with all invited for performances and potluck.