SMSD Board of Education candidates on the issues: Communication about gun incidents

Last month, we asked our readers what issues they wanted to hear the candidates running for local office address ahead of this fall’s local elections primary. Based on the input we received, we developed a five-item questionnaire for candidates running for the Shawnee Mission Board of Education.

Today, we are publishing the candidates’ responses to item three:

 There have been two high profile incidents involving guns in the district this year, with a shooting near Highlands Elementary and students bringing guns to school at Hocker Grove. Some parents have expressed frustration with what they perceive as a lack of communication about those incidents. Was the district’s response to these incidents adequate in your estimation? If not, what should be done to improve communication about such incidents?

School District Member 1 (SM North area)

Lisa Feingold

As parents and guardians, we trust the district with our children when we send them to school. We are told SMSD has protocols in place for emergency situations, and want to believe those procedures are tested and meet the needs of our communities. I don’t believe the district’s response was adequate. SMSD must make immediate improvements to their current lockdown policy—including communications policies and procedures.

This revision must include the following:

  • 1. Develop a security protocol and stick to it. SMSD must define a comprehensive protocol for every possible safety scenario, drilling and training for that scenario, and adhere to that plan when an incident does occur.
  • 2. Ensure that the SMSD community knows the plan. District leaders must ensure parents feel a strong security protocol exists. That means 1) making people aware there is a plan in place, 2) people know in advance what the plan is, and 3) the plan is being practiced.
  • 3. Secure first, communicate second. SMSD must set clear expectations about priorities and clearly communicate the procedures with parents and community members at the outset of each school year. District policy must commit to communicating accurate information post-incident as soon as possible in coordination with local law enforcement.
  • 4. Provide parents with an ongoing a safe space to ask questions and get answers. District leaders must provide a forum where parents can pose critical questions before, during, and after incidents. They must communicate how critical information will be released to the public. Parents need to know where to go for the most accurate information, especially in times of crisis or concern. District leadership must regularly remind community members how and where that information will be shared.
  • 5. Review and revamp outdated protocols. District leadership must review protocols at regularly scheduled intervals ensuring that they are up-to-date, incorporate current best practices, and address shortcomings at every point of the process.
    The SMSD website, social media channels, Skyward, automated calls (like inclement weather and food service notifications), email, and text messages should all be utilized to communicate with parents, guardians, and emergency contacts listed for students according to the improved lockdown policy. All communications should be in English and Spanish, and all other languages relevant to the parent and student community. I would advocate for a policy which addresses these areas, modeled after other districts’ policies which exemplify current best-practices—for example, Tacoma Public Schools.

Brian Koon

“In general, communication from the administration to parents and patrons needs to significantly improve. Incomplete, unclear, or delayed communication also exacerbates incidents like the ones we experienced this year.

Regarding problematic communication during the two gun related events, I perceive that we need something better than what currently exists. As a former law enforcement officer, I know something about critical incident management. There used to be an idea that law enforcement didn’t want too much information to get out because parents would panic and flood the area in search of their children. In the age of ubiquitous cell phones, students or passersby will likely post information regardless of what the district wants, and parents will find out anyway but perhaps receive inaccurate information.

During a critical incident parents may flood the area of a school as a normal reaction, and the district needs to manage this reaction as well as possible by sharing as much information as reasonable. Parents deserve to find out what’s happening from someone managing the situation instead of via internet rumors or text message from their panicked children. An email long after the fact is not sufficient.

Some schools have a text-line they use to inform or remind parents of upcoming school related events. I propose the SMSD creates a similar dedicated text-line for each school, that uses a standardized, clear, system for communication during an emergency, threat, or gun incident. Perhaps the district should use a simple green/yellow/red risk coding system, and include basic information and instructions for parents (risk level green – no response needed, check email for more information; risk level yellow – pick up your student at alternate site; etc.).

For example, with the incident at Hocker Grove, parents might have received a “green risk level, no/low threat” message with text stating that two guns were found on school premises and that no students were injured. A message like this informs parents with factual information, and conveys that their child is safe.

As a parent, these are the details I need. Administrators can follow up later via email with a fuller account of the incident.

This is the reality of our time, and making laws to prevent gun violence falls outside the scope of a school board election. Things will continue to be this way for my children and yours, until our Legislators embrace reasonable gun restrictions.”

Sara Goodburn (incumbent)

In these incidents as well as most incidents that occur, there is always a gap between the information that people want to know and the information that the school district can provide. Especially as events are unfolding, one has to be very careful not to put out erroneous information because they are simply in a hurry. The district has standards for communication during school safety incidents or threats. After every incident, a thorough evaluation should take place to review the lessons that were learned and to see how protocols might be improved. To prevent possibly risking the safety of students, it is important for parents to understand what the school and local law enforcement require of them during these emergency situations. With the internet and social media, misinformation can easily spread as we saw played out in Lawrence recently. I think it is important for parents to also stay informed on the chosen methods that the district uses to communicate, especially during events, lock-downs or crisis situations. Also, it is important to note that because of the law and student privacy issues, not all details can be disclosed to the community at large. At the end of the day, I believe the most important thing to remember is that the safety of our students must come first. The need to communicate comes next. They are both very important but the most important is making sure the students in our buildings are safe.

School District Member 3 (SM South area)

Brian S. Brown

Any individual that you talk with about incidents like this believe that they are distressing and want to know why they occurred in the first place. While I appreciate the question being asked and the spirit of what the question is attempting to address, ultimately the heart of the patrons want to know is “are our schools safe enough?”

I would much rather understand how we have even gotten to this place. I believe the district should perform a root-cause analysis on each of these cases in an effort to understand why these events occurred. This will allow the school district to be more successful in preventing our children from harming themselves or others. That being said, there are three points that I would like to make.

First, guns should not be allowed on any campus … period – that includes arming teachers. It is the district’s responsibility to provide a safe environment where our students can learn. School safety was an issue that my fellow colleagues and I prioritized with the work that we did on the 2014 SMSD Facilities Committee. Since then, Chief John Douglass and his team have done a tremendous job bringing our facilities from where they were in 2014 to where they are today. We can always improve in this area.

Second, we need to ensure that we are meeting the psycho-social needs of our students. With providing additional wrap around services in schools, the district will allow staff members to better to understand “where” our children are when they come to school to learn. By having these resources in place it will also help mitigate scenarios of students experiencing emotional crisis, which can escalate into scenarios where students have the desire harm themselves or others. Prioritizing student mental and behavioral health increases the district’s ability to achieve more favorable results, because we will be meeting the whole student’s needs.

Lastly, communication is always a challenge in any system. I believe that there should be a notification process that is engrained in the district’s emergency preparedness plan that outlines: How communication will take place in light of such event and when it will take place. This then becomes the expectation moving forward.

With strategies like these implemented, I believe that patrons can feel more comfortable with the safety of our children while they are at school.

Jessica Hembree

First and foremost, I support common sense gun safety reforms that will make it easier for schools to protect children.

When incidents involving guns occur on or near schools, parents rightly worry about their children’s safety and should receive accurate and timely information. Communication should also be proactive. Schools should communicate policies and protocols ahead of time so that parents know what to expect in case of emergency. Parents should know, in advance, where to go for the most reliable and up-to-date information, including when children can be picked up and why, in some cases, it might be safer for students to remain at school. Parents should also be empowered to reinforce safety messages being delivered at school about what to do if they become aware of the threat of gun violence.

The district must also work closely with first responders across all 14 SMSD cities to ensure seamless planning and communication to keep students safe. Parents have reasonably questioned why students at Highlands Elementary were dismissed before the gunman was apprehended. We can learn from this incident and ensure that communication is more clear in the future.

School District Member 5 (SM Northwest area)

Devin Wilson

In responding to these incidents, student safety must always be paramount. In active situations, disseminating certain information during the event could put people at risk. In other cases, it is important that timely information be provided to keep parents, patrons, staff in the loop. As soon as situations are under control, and safety is ensured, appropriate communications should be made, starting at the building level and continuing to the district level.

One of the ideas suggested from the parent meeting at Highlands, following the event, was to make better use of the district’s Alert systems and to consider adding instructions to the website. Not all family members or caregivers are signed up in the Alert systems in which instructions can be pushed out. The ask was for a designated “place” for concerned caregivers to “push in” to get instructions. I would like to see some exploration of the district website, such as the Alerts page, to provide timely instructions that caregivers could access in case of another event.

I think it wise to avoid second guessing the decisions made in these particular incidents as an outsider, after the fact. Instead, we should foster continuous improvement from the information gleaned. As a board member, I will work to ensure that policies, procedures and communications are appropriate to ensure the safety of our students and their families. As a father, my first priority will be what is best for our children.

Jamie Borgman

I have three children in SMSD: one in elementary, one in middle school and one in high school. Ever since Sandy Hook, when I drop my kids off at school, I tell them I love them and I am praying for them. If something should happen at school, I want my kids to know that. What a scary world to raise our kids.

When it comes to issues surrounding student safety, the district has to communicate information quickly and through a number of channels. The district needs to text, email and if serious enough, robo call information to parents. If a situation should occur, our number one priority needs to be ensuring the safety of our students and staff, and then we have to communicate to parents as quickly as possible. As a former journalist,
I understand the importance of transparency along with quick, accurate and effective communication. Additionally, I do not support metal detectors at school and I do not support arming our teachers.