Spokane Public Schools Investing Dollars, Personnel in School Safety

Nikolas Cruz is led out of the courtroom after being arraigned at the Broward County Courthouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Wednesday, March 14, 2018. Cruz is accused of opening fire at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., Feb. 14, killing 17 students and adults.
BY JIM MCKAY MAY 24, 2018

Mental health professionals, resource officers and locked doors are just part of the program.

Spokane Public Schools in Washington state has engineered a school safety program that combines important physical safeguards and the crucial human elements to deter the kind of violence seen and feared recently.

The district, which includes seven high schools, six middle schools and 34 elementary schools, has instituted a single-point-of-entry policy at each school, meaning every door is locked once school begins and visitors must check in at the only entry point.

Visitors enter only after having been cleared, via video camera and intercom, by office staff or a resource officer. They are given a badge and (at the middle and high school levels) visitors’ drivers’ licenses are scanned and checked against a registered sex offender data base and for anyone with trespass or domestic violence issues.

That’s for stranger intrusion, said Mark Sterk, director of safety, risk management and transportation for the district. “It’s really not designed to stop the school shootings, where it’s a student doing the shooting. We rely on the resource officers in the schools making relationships with the kids.”

And there’s much more to it than that. There’s a See Something, Say Something initiative where students are encouraged to report anything that may indicate a student is struggling and may need some help — or if the student may pose a danger to themselves or others. Students are encouraged to talk to an adult or report their concerns via text, email or voicemail if they like.

There’s a threat assessment system in place where a team evaluates the reported information. The team includes Sterk, a school psychologist, special education personnel, teachers, principals, vice principals and resource officers.

“We go through and talk about every piece of the investigation, Sterk said. “We do home visits, so that if we have a kid who’s making threats we go out with the Spokane Police Departments, meet with the student’s parents. We ask permission to take a look at the student’s bedroom so that we can look for drawings, writings, some of those things that we know came out of studies by the Secret Service and FBI.”

Most of the threat assessments end with the findings that the student was just “blowing off steam” and was incapable of violence. Sterk said the district has done about 70 assessments over the past year and threats spiked after a shooting at Freeman High School in Spokane and after the Parkland, Fla., shooting.

“So many of them are just frustrated and they do make those threats but don’t have the capacity or the weapons aren’t available to them, but you have to take them all seriously and check them all out,” he said.

Although most of the threats aren’t serious, Sterk said administrators are finding, “an extreme amount of mental illness and getting them treatment is paramount to changing those patterns and to keep them from taking that next step and acting out in a violent way.”

For that the district employs around 50 mental health professionals to work with students and faculty.

The district has spent about $5 million on school safety over the last four years and continues to upgrade its safety program. It is beginning a program to further educate students and faculty on what to look for in a student who needs help and to share that information. “We’re going to train the teachers to talk about those things in their classrooms,” Sterk said.

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