Avonworth reports on school safety

By NANCY WHYTE

Avonworth School District presented a wealth of information during “Safety Information Night,” on Monday, March 19.

The event was held at the Primary Center on Roosevelt Road. More than 60 people attended and heard from the many presenters who included district administrators and representatives of the Ohio Township Police Department and Ohio Township Volunteer Fire Company.

While taking their seats, attendees noticed that appearing on the front screen was a Web site. Members of the audience were invited to ask questions via their electronic devices. Additionally, they were to select which questions from the audience-generated list they were most interested in hearing addressed. At the end of the presentation, the most popular questions were specifically answered. Those individuals whose questions were not selected were encouraged to contact an administrator by e-mail or phone.

Superintendent Tom Ralston welcomed everyone and explained that the presentation's purpose was to provide a comprehensive view of how safety is approached throughout the district. He assured parents that providing a safe environment for the students and staff was the top priority. Ralston said that everyone – staff, parents and children -- has a part to play.

Ralston introduced Cpl. Chris Simcoviak and detective Joe Hanny, each of whom has served for more than 20 years with the Ohio Township Police Department. “We have a wonderful working relationship with the department,” said Ralston. Simcoviak serves as the school resource officer for the Avonworth district and Hanny will be the new police chief upon the upcoming retirement of Chief Beaver Micklos.

Simkoviack emphasized the importance of personal connections and shared communications. Hanny described the department's daily walk-through of school buildings and stated there would be increased visability of officers at sporting events and other activities taking place beyond typical school hours.

Ralson described how several times the Ohio Township Volunteer Fire Company had assisted in emergency water line breaks by pumping out water and cleaning up so that school could be held and classes didn't have to be canceled. Fire Chief Rob Penfield explained how the department assisted during fire drills, attempting to make the drills as realistic as possible and how fire prevention was emphasized in the schools and other measures taken to keep students and staff safe.

Middle school principal Mike Hall explained the structure and purpose of the Safety Committee, a group comprised of teachers, principals, staff, parents and representatives of the police and fire departments who meet monthly to discuss and prepare for any safety scenario. With such a variety of individuals, safety is viewed from multiple perspectives.

Considering the recent tragic rash of school shootings, it isn't surprising that “active shooter” scenarios are foremost in most people's minds. However, there are a number of situations that have to prepared for when considering school safety. The Avonworth School District trains for and provides information and resources for many emergencies including first aid, having Narcan available and annual training in food allergies and other health conditions. There are trainings in de-escalation and nonviolent crisis intervention. Additionally, there are drills practiced for a variety of situations including fire, severe weather, bus evacuation, school evacuations, and active shooter scenarios.

Specifically geared to gun events, there have been “ALICE” trainings where the strategies practiced are: alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate. Another strategy, “Run, Hide, Fight,” is discussed every year with secondary level students. Younger students are presented information in an age-appropriate manner.

Jessica Taylor, director of student services, explained the Student Assistance Program (SAP) and provided information about where one can turn for behavioral or mental health issues. Taylor detailed what kinds of behaviors the staff members are specifically trained to look for, and she clarified referral procedures and services that can be utilized.

Both Ralson and Hanny outlined how safety strategies and procedures have changed in the 19 years since the Columbine High School massacre in Colorado. Placing students in lockdown used to be the primary response for a school to take in a shooting scenario. Now, more proactive strategies are employed and older students in the Avonworth district are empowered to make choices. Hanny said that years ago the procedure of law enforcement in active shooter situations was generally to establish a perimeter and wait for further back-up personnel. Now, he said, training emphasizes that the primary objective of the first officer on the scene is to “do whatever it takes to stop what is happening.”

Ralston assured everyone that the Avonworth School District has made numerous improvements in school safety and would continue to do so. At the March meeting, he said, the school board had been presented with a wide range of additional measures to consider. Ralston stated that he personally strove for “not on my watch (would a tragedy occur).”

During the school day, all school buildings have secure entrances and all classroom doors are locked. Each secretary has quick, automatic access to 911. The district Web site contains a lot of information on a number of safety issues and there are ways to provide tips anonymously, although individuals are always encouraged to contact any of the administrators via phone or e-mail, at any time or day, with concerns. The staff receives frequent training in multiple areas and each school has a variety of established programs and policies that encourage a sense of belonging and communication.

Nevertheless, Ralston admitted that there are vunerabilities beyond everyone’s control, and that there is always a chance some horrific event could occur.

“I’d never want to put a price tag on safety, Ralston said, “but it does come at a cost.” Ralston reiterated that “we will take the measures we think are necessary to keep out kids safe.”

Ralston reported that at their monthly meetings, Northern Area school superintendents share the safety practices that are followed in their districts. But Ralston then emphasized that each district is unique based on size, demographics and rural or urban settings. So, “we have to determine what will work best for Avonworth,” Ralston concluded the presentation by thanking all for attending and saying that after hearing all the precautions and preparations the district is utilizing, “I hope you feel better walking out the door than you did walking in.”