Public offers tips to keep schools safe

By Christina Sampson

January 11, 2013 - 11:14 am
Mayor Christian Price, upper left, School Resource Officer Arielle Cohen, and middle school principals Rick Abel and Joe Veres among group discussing school safety Thursday. Christina Sampson photo

Panic buttons, a texting tree and keyless locks – community members came up with these and other suggestions Thursday when they put their heads together in the name of school safety.

During a forum co-sponsored by the Maricopa Unified School District and Maricopa Police Department, the public met in small groups to discuss safety measures.

Superintendent Steve Chestnut said the forum was organized in response to questions he received from parents after the December school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.

Twenty-seven people, 20 of them children, were killed when Adam Lanza broke into the school and started randomly shooting teachers and students before killing himself.

Parents, district administrators, city officials and teachers at the forum were asked to what was good about the district’s safety procedures and what could use improvement.

Chestnut said district schools were safe and he has confidence in the district’s safety protocols. Still, he pointed out, “there’s always room for improvement, and that’s one reason we’re gathered here tonight.”

Before the group discussions began, attendees were given a brief overview of the safety measures in place.

First, Chestnut said, is the overall recognition by everyone in the district that “student safety is the highest priority, every day, of every staff member in our district.”

“It’s everybody’s job,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a bus driver or a school custodian or a teacher, everybody has to put that at the top of their list.”

Secondly, Chestnut said the district’s emergency response plan is “a living, breathing document” establishing procedures for situations ranging from student unrest to weapons being brought on campus.

Elementary and secondary school handbooks establish consequences for student behavior in school and schoolwide rules reinforce discipline on a larger scale, he said.

A new i-SAFE curriculum introduced this year will teach students about cyber bullying and appropriate behavior online.

Police Chief Steve Stahl discussed the police department’s role and introduced Officer Arielle Cohen, the district’s school resource officer.

Although Cohen had only been on the job for four days, Stahl said “there’s nobody better suited personality or drivewise” for the job.

Stahl pointed out the city and district split the cost of having a school resource officer when the city did not receive a state grant that usually funds the position.

When it comes to school safety, the chief said, the police department focuses on prevention.

“Yes, we’re prepared to respond should something happen, but the focus has to be on prevention,” he said.

One preventative resource the police department has, Stahl said, is Maricopa Police Det. Michael Burns.

Burns is a terrorism liaison officer trained in assessing potentially vulnerable sites – such as schools and utilities – and securing them against possible threats.

The police department also reviews weekly updates from the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center. When appropriate, Stahl said, schools and parents will be notified of potential threats.

Members of the groups Thursday largely agreed the district’s safety policies are good, listing the school resource officer and district partnership with the police department as assets.

Common suggestions for improvement were educating the community about the safety measures in place, improving lighting in some of the parking lots, increasing awareness of mental health issues among students and having uniformed police officers pay more frequent visits to campuses.

The suggestions will be typed up and “reflected upon” by the district, Chestnut said.

Another safety forum is planned for the spring; the date still to be determined.

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