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Keeping kids safe in Wadena, Verndale schools

Wadena-Deer Creek Middle-High School continues to look at ways to improve safety for students and staff. Paula Quam/Pioneer Journal1 / 3
Some tools available to staff to lock doors in an emergency are being made available to assist in keeping dangerous persons out at Wadena-Deer Creek Schools. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal2 / 3
Wadena-Deer Creek High School Principal Tyler Church shows a device used to lock a door from either the inside or outside of a room in case a door lock in unavailable or is disabled. Staff are learning how to use the equipment in lock down situations. Michael Johnson/Pioneer Journal3 / 3

Jan. 20, 2017 a shotgun blast was heard at West Liberty-Salem High School in Ohio just before school was starting. Many students ran into rooms and barricaded the doors. Others broke out windows in order to facilitate an evacuation of the building to safety. Staff in the vicinity of the shooter rushed him, took him to the ground, and held him until the police arrived five minutes later. The targeted student suffered gunshot wounds. None of the other students who evacuated the building or the staff who subdued the shooter reportedly were injured.

The staff that took down the gunman were said to have gone through ALICE Training Institute, a type of training that charges the trainee to be less passive and more resistant in order to save lives. ALICE stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. The institute website states that, "At the ALICE Training Institute, we believe that individuals should be authorized and empowered to make their own life-saving decisions. Once empowered to make their own life-saving decisions, individuals must be trained in proactive response options, rather than a passive, mandated, one size fits all response."

Some area schools have gone through this training or are currently going through it and those involved believe it is helpful in forming a plan to fight back in active shooter situations.

At Wadena-Deer Creek Schools High School principal Tyler Church and athletic director/dean of students Norm Gallant are leading the charge. They recognized that the school safety measures of the past were very inadequate to threats of an active shooter.

Church recently demonstrated different tools the school now has available to lock doors, even if the door has no lock. They work by going under the door and adjust to various door frame sizes or locking a hinge.

"ALICE teaches you how to buy time," Church said.

Gallant said the training in ALICE was "not pleasant."

"It was very intense training, more than anything I have ever been to, it just really examined what you are doing and how you would respond," Gallant said. "It really made us think and to be more connected."

Superintendent Lee Westrum said the biggest part to the training is to encourage people to not just be bystanders. It encourages students and staff to follow training and react to the situation, not just lockdown. It can involve alerting others, running, hiding, distracting, blocking and if need be fighting back.

"If you have a chance, you take out the threat," Westrum said.

Part of the training involves having items on hand that can be used to fight back, baseballs, a golf club, or even that history book could finally come in handy to distract or stun an attacker, or break a window to escape. But fighting back is not the only way staff and students are learning to have a fighting chance.

"The ultimate goal is to evacuate," Church said.

The training started thanks to funding through National Joint Powers Alliance (NJPA) in Staples. The training took place in Verndale and involved Verndale and Wadena school staff as well as area law enforcement.

In Verndale Public School, Superintendent Paul Brownlow, said the school is to the point where students are now being trained in ALICE Training. They are instructed to take all these trainings seriously. And so far, Brownlow has been impressed with the actions of staff and students as well as the feedback he gets back from those involved.

During the last parent teacher conferences at Verndale, Brownlow said the training was rolled out to give parents a better idea of what will now happen in the event of an active shooter.

Part of the change involves working with law enforcement to stop traffic at Hwy. 10, virtually stopping any traffic from coming or going, at least from the north side of town.

Students would be routed away from the school, and if an agreement with WDC is made, Wadena could provide transportation for the students if Verndale is unable to do so. Brownlow recognizes that can add a hassle to those looking to get their children in a hurry, but it is meant for their safety.

This spring, students at Verndale are continuing to learn about ways they can barricade doors and entries and when that may be necessary. It's the practice that he feels is helping them be confident in emergency situations.

"I think it's unfortunate," Brownlow said of the increase of shootings. "We see it more and more and more—it's a reality."

All this training has helped the school earn special certification.

Verndale Public School achieved Level 1 certification in Marzano High Reliability Schools. Level 1 certification means Verndale has created a "Safe and Collaborative Culture."

Brownlow said staff traveled outside of the state getting information on ways to improve safety and student success, and after they were interviewed and observed, it was clear that they were doing some things right.

"Students say they feel safe in the building," Brownlow said. One other step he feels would deter a dangerous person would be to have a squad car out in front of the school. Some members of the school board would like to see bullet-proof glass in windows. With each step towards keeping things safer, area schools realize the line between public space and military facility gets finer and finer.

Westrum said if there was an unlimited budget at hand, they could bring military-grade security to the WDC district. Fences around the perimeter, guards at all doors, enough fire power to hold off a small army. But that would surely destroy the welcoming atmosphere a public school strives to provide to students, staff and the community.

The WDC High School currently has a door lock system that can be controlled from a computer, essentially giving a staff member the ability to lock or unlock a door as needed at anytime or to schedule a time that it would lock or unlock. Cameras are poised in areas throughout the schools entrances. Anyone entering the building during school hours is routed to the front desk. Cameras, intercom systems and advanced electronic door locking systems are all big parts of keeping students safe.

In the Wadena elementary school, doors are locked manually and guests are routed through the main office during school hours. But with an upcoming elementary school remodel, computer-controlled door locks, surveillance equipment and new classroom doors are planned to be installed. Beyond these steps, Westrum believes the school atmosphere could change dramatically.

"The next step would be a pretty big one," Westrum said.

That step is what some schools are putting into place including adding metal detectors, armed officers or other screenings. Those are things Westrum believes would take away the feeling of community and openness that the school strives to convey. And considering the amount of events that parents and the community are invited to at the schools, it would require major changes in how the school functions.

"I don't know that there is a desire to do that," Westrum said.

Brownlow and Church both indicated that a school resource officer would be considered if funding made it possible.

Brownlow and Church indicated that having the resource officer provides a trained person that can stop a threat but also offer another positive law enforcement interaction with students.

Westrum is also not ready to see teachers with guns in the school district. It's a conversation some districts in the country are having but Westrum believes it takes a very skilled individual to be able to make the right decision with a gun in a school setting. He also recognizes that teachers do not become teachers so that they can pack heat in the classroom.

"We don't like thinking about these situations," Gallant said. "We went to school because we love kids. The way that the climate has changed, it's not fun to think about, but I think it's important to keep the kids safe and have a plan to keep them safe."

Westrum said the best practice is to get to a point with students, staff and the community that everyone feels free to communicate anything that may be of concern.

"The best preventative measure is to find out about (the threat)," Westrum said. Church agreed that all students should have an adult in the school that they can be comfortable coming to with information.

Church said the process of learning new ways to stay safe is evolving. He believes the ALICE Training is the right direction right now. It's an approach schools, law enforcement and businesses are getting on board with.

"We're slowly getting everyone trained on it," Church said. That will involve all staff, including bus drivers, cooks and custodians, who can also play a big part in school safety.

This summer Wadena will be going through a full training for staff so that students can be brought into the training by next school year.