Shakopee school district staff members sat in a classroom at the high school on a late summer afternoon with a 100-page booklet and pens. It was 75 degrees and sunny Aug. 22, and district staff members weren’t required to attend the School Crisis Prevention and Intervention training session called PREPARE. But still, more than 100 teachers, custodians, special educators and administrators showed up.
Todd Savage, a professor in school psychology at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls and one of the instructors for the training session, said he was blown away by the turnout.
“Typically people who show up (to these sessions) are administrators or school-based mental health (professionals),” Savage said. “And that’s great. But we often overlook teachers, custodians, kitchen staff... who all play an important role in the school from relationship perspectives.”
In an age when physical safety is at the forefront of many people’s thoughts — surveillance videos, secured entrances, visitor’s badges, hall monitoring, security officers — many parents and educators overlook the importance of psychological safety, Scott Woitaszewski, also a school psychology professor at UWRF, said. And part of psychological safety includes widespread district staff involvement in crises prevention training, which is exactly what Woitaszewski and Savage saw at the August conference.
Savage and Woitaszewski, who have travelled to nearly 100 schools across the country to teach crisis prevention and intervention strategies, say Shakopee is in good shape — and not necessarily for reasons you might be thinking. The visitor management system, security cameras, entrance control and lockdown card reader systems within Shakopee Schools are important, they said. But just as crucial to Shakopee’s school safety is the assurance that students’ psychological needs are being met. And Woitaszewski said the best way to do this is through isolation prevention: making sure no child feels forgotten or alone.
“Research shows when we balance physical safety with psychological safety, schools overall are more secure,” Woitaszewski said. “Physical safety (is important). But relationships between students and staff, connectedness, resiliency... are just as important.”
Connectedness between students and staff, Woitaszewski said, benefits schools on all counts. Studies have shown the benefits of connectedness has on academics, and it helps prevent many crises from happening in the first place. When crises do occur, sound relationships that have been fostered over time are just as important as the quick-thinking action plan schools have in place.
Woitaszewski said student isolation is one of the most dangerous factors that can come into play in school crises. That’s because isolation can lead to depression, suicidal ideation, and — in some cases — violence. Shakopee High School’s new model, the Academies, are smaller communities of students and teachers who cater to the students’ interests. After freshman year, students will choose between the arts and communications, business and entrepreneurship, engineering and manufacturing, health science, human services or science and technology academies.
“With the academies, we’re having small schools within a big school,” Assistant Superintendent Dave Orlowsky said. That means students who stay in the same academy all three years will likely have the same set of teachers all three years, which is rare.
“If (a student) is struggling in math,” Orlowsky said, “it might be a one-time struggle, but they might be struggling in other classes, and this group of teachers can see that pattern.”
That kind of connectedness is exactly what Woitaszewski says schools should aim for. And it’s part of the reason the Academies of Shakopee were initiated in the first place.
Shakopee school psychologist Brenda Geraghty participates in the arts and communication academy at the high school. She said teachers and staff within the department walk through a list of every student’s name within the academy and notes which students the staff feels they have a good connection with. They revisit the list as the year goes on to monitor which students might need more attention.
The ratio of school psychologists to students is important, Woitaszewski said, because most students don’t have access to mental health care outside of the school setting. The ratio of students per school psychologist is estimated to be 1,381 to one in the United States, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. Shakopee’s ratio is about 1,100 to one across its schools, with seven psychologists. It also employs 11 counselors, 10 social workers and six licensed school nurses across its nine schools. Woitaszewski said access to mental health care is another crucial detail related to school safety.
Twenty percent of children in the United States have mental health issues that rise to significance, Woitaszewski said, and only 20% of those children ever get outside help for those issues.
“The only point of (mental health care) access is in their schools,” Woitaszewski said, adding that as time has progressed, the need for more mental health care in schools has ballooned.
Knowing the risks
Part of a district’s overall safety, Woitaszewski said, means gaining a sense of known risks.
“Armed assailant and school intruder situations are really rare,” he said. “If we only put all our energy into armed assailants, we will be grossly unprepared when other things like tornadoes happen.”
In 2016, Shakopee Schools began a lockdown procedure called ALICE, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate. The procedure required building staff to participate in training to learn how to hold drills and offered staff meetings for those who had questions on the procedure.
“At a minimum, our staff reviews ALICE protocols yearly, preferably over the summer when all teachers report back to work,” a district news release said about the new lockdown procedure. “As a district, we will continue to monitor and evaluate all of our safety/emergency drills, reflect and debrief to continually improve. In the fall of 2018, we reviewed our training with more than 1,000 of our staff via both an online training course and in-person training at our schools.”
Shakopee is also in the process of implementing a new Raptor Visitor Management System for the 2019-20 school year, which is designed to read visitor’s driver’s licenses and compare them to a sex offender database. When a visitor is cleared through the system, a visitor badge is printed.
Shakopee schools have 600 installed security cameras throughout the district, they recently upgraded to a new door control system, and a new card reader system allows the cardholder to lock down buildings automatically.
According to the recent community survey in which 422 registered voters in Shakopee were asked about their opinions on the school district, 11% of respondents were extremely confident in school safety, 26% felt very confident, 38% felt somewhat confident, 12% did not feel very confident, 3% were not at all confident, and the rest could not answer.