Communcation, clear expecations crucial to halting school violence

Good communication between parents, teachers and students is one way to avoid violence at a school according to an Idaho security expert. (For the Enterprise/Jodi Elizondo).

VALE – Guy Bliesner spends a lot of time thinking about school safety.

A security analyst at the Idaho Office of School Safety, Bliesner travels the Gem State conducting threat assessments at schools.

His office furnishes training to school districts and provides school leaders with reports on how they can make their schools safe. The Idaho Legislature created the Office of School Safety in 2016.

During the past few months, local school safety has become an important issue around Malheur County. Area schools handled several threats this past academic year. Police and school officials didn’t find any weapons in any of the cases but the teens involved were charged in juvenile court.

In March, an Ontario High School sophomore was overheard making threats and a note found in the teen’s backpack included a threat to blow up the school. The 15- year-old was charged with disorderly conduct.

An incident in May at the Nyssa School District involved a middle school student who penned a note that threatened a violent act against the principal and another student. The 13-year-old was later charged with disorderly conduct and menacing. Two weeks ago, two Adrian students were overheard making a threat that they would “spare no one.” The Malheur County Sheriff’s Office cited the teens last week for second-degree disorderly conduct.

Bliesner said his experience shows there are eight crucial steps parents – and school officials – can take to diminish school violence. Good communication between students, teachers and administrators, clear expectations and relationship development are at the core of Bliesner’s message.

But, he said, the climate and culture of a specific school is important as well.

“If your school does not have a safety committee you should encourage them to have one and that should include school staff and it ought to include parents,” said Bliesner.

If you are a parent, understanding the safety standards of your child’s school is also important, he said.

“If the expectation is that you are to enter through a common door, that expectation applies to you. Know what your school expects of you,” said Bliesner.

Bliesner said adhering to expectations may seem like a small detail but it is crucial.

“One of the things we noted, in small town Idaho, is you get teachers that do not wear a visible credential. They say, ‘everyone knows me.’ But that is not why you wear a credential. You wear it to create an expectation. Kids will tell adults when someone weird is wandering around because they don’t have a ticket,” said Bliesner.

Bliesner said parents also should ensure their contact information with a school is current.

“Nationally, this is flawed in some fashion. Schools have had to call people and a quarter of the phone numbers are incorrect,” said Bliesner.

Building a positive culture within school walls is also important, said Bliesner.

“Kids don’t shoot up places they like,” said Bliesner.

 Bliesner said the communication piece comes into play because teachers and students interact closely each day. Bliesner said typically an observant teacher can identify a student who may be in crisis. Those signs run a gamut, said Bliesner, but include a sudden change in behavior such as isolating from others or abrupt discipline and academic problems. Bullying, he said, also plays a role.

“They normally have been social but now are not — subtle clues that the kid is not herself or himself,” said Bliesner.

Teachers, he said, are in a unique position to pick up these signs.

“By their nature, educators tend to be more empathetic and they watch things. The relationship piece is what we are looking for as an indicator to help pick up those kids,” said Bliesner.

Bliesner said usually the clues that a student is grappling with a mental health issue are detectable.

“There is no such thing as he just snapped,” said Bliesner. Once a student in crisis is identified, the best scenario includes districts providing mental health services for that individual, he said.

Bliesner said his office trains Idaho educators how to detect students who may be facing a mental health crisis. Called a behavioral health assessment, Bliesner said it can be an effective tool for reducing potential threats.

“We train it as a team process. If you see one of these kids at risk, you convene the team and do some investigation. You talk to their friends. Get on their social media. There are two key questions with behavioral assessment: Do they pose a threat? Did they make a threat?” said Bliesner.

Parents play an important role, too, said Bliesner.

“If your child shows any indicators, get help. And if you see something, tell someone. If you see something you think is odd, chances are it is,” said Bliesner.

Jeremy Wells, an education specialist for the Oregon Department of Education said a statewide safety tip line – called SafeOregon – is one of the most effective methods to combat school violence.

“The first thing parents and school districts need to be signed up for is SafeOregon. That is the most important thing,” said Wells.

Wells, who oversees the department’s safe and drug free school program, said SafeOregon is effective.

“Mom can call SafeOregon and say, ‘hey, at this school this student made this threat.’ Then SafeOregon goes through its protocols and contacts the district,” said Wells.

Students and parents can access SafeOregon through its web site, by text, email or by phone.

The Oregon State Police provide the SafeOregon service. It is a 24-hour-a-day resource where trained personnel field the calls for all public schools in Oregon. When a tip of school violence is received, SafeOregon technicians send the information to local law enforcement and school officials.

The service is free, said Wells, and all parents or school leaders need to do is sign up.

According to state officials, SafeOregon received 174 tips from January to June 2017. Most were sent online and 2 percent were judged critical.

Wells said there are other priorities for schools and communities.

“Does the school district or the community have a threat assessment process or program?” said Wells.

Bliesner said parents should be a little skeptical regarding statistics on school shootings nationally.

“They are probably inflated,” said Bliesner.

Bliesner said how school shooting statistics are reported can be skewed.

“If someone in Ontario, Oregon, drives to OHS and commits suicide on Sunday night, that is a school shooting. If there is an inner-city drug deal gone bad on a playground, that is a school shooting,” said Bliesner.

Jodi Elizondo, the principal at Ontario High School, kicked off an in-depth security review after two events in the spring. The death of 17 people in February in a school shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Broward County Florida, focused Elizondo’s attention on school security. In March, an OHS sophomore was arrested after making threatening remarks about a violent incident. The two incidents prompted Elizondo to rethink safety measures at OHS.

Elizondo contacted Bliesner, who did a one-day security audit at the high school. The school already scheduled lock-down drills and has other safety measures in place such as surveillance cameras. Elizondo, though, said she wished to do more.

“We wanted to take something that could have been bad and be as prepared as we could get,” said Elizondo.

Elizondo said the security review by Bliesner was valuable. She said she plans to implement many of Bliesner’s suggestions next fall.

“We will limit access to certain areas of our campus to cars and people. Students and staff will all wear IDs. And we are going to limit the number of entrances into the building,” said Elizondo.

Elizndo said a large number of lockers would be removed. That’s because, Elizondo said, the security review revealed weapons can be easier to hide in a locker.

“Most kids don’t use them anyway. We only had 60 kids out of 700 who checked out a locker,” said Elizondo. Elizondo said providing a safe school environment can be a balancing act. Bliesner agreed.

“Big buildings can be a prison or a castle. It is a mindset. We can tighten these things down like a prison but that would not be conducive to the education environment,” said Bliesner.

Reporter Pat Caldwell: [email protected] or 541-473-3377.