Behind school walls: Schools, districts address students’ concerns, needs and safety
Oct 24, 2018 04:12PM
By Jana Klopsch
Students at Silver Mesa Elementary participate in anti-bullying classes in 2016. (Julie Slama/City Journals)
By Julie Slama | [email protected]
Last year, a female student in a Granite School District secondary school broke up with her boyfriend. However, before the break-up, she sent inappropriate photos of herself to him, which he then threatened to send them to others. District officials were able to seize the devices, collect images and be able to put a stop to the potential spread of child pornography and at the same time, provide comfort to the female student that those photos weren’t spread.
“It was brought to our attention, so we were able to act quickly,” Granite School District spokesman Ben Horsley said. “We need our students to be able to feel safe to be able to learn and once someone violates that, such as with Internet safety, it impacts our school environment.”
Internet safety is just one of many concerns school administrators and school district officials are managing these days: not having enough school bus drivers, increasing enrollment resulting in not having enough lockers, textbooks or seats for students in class, and being concerned about going over the student limit assigned to teachers. School districts need to be concerned with medical and food issues, content material, sexual harassment concerns and safety matters that aren’t seen by the general public.
“We’re dealing with issues that didn’t even exist 10 or 20 years ago,” Horsley said. “But we’re wanting to create an environment and a community that is safe and all-encompassing and provides resources, skills and knowledge.”
Horsley said about 80 to 85 percent of Granite schoolchildren carry a cell phone — even many from low socio-economic families.
“It’s considered a must-have item, but with parents working, there are many students using it without supervision and that’s when cyberbullying, sexting, viewing pornography on school property comes about,” he said, adding that the district does provide a parents’ guide for smartphones.
While Horsley said the district works with administrators and, when needed, law enforcement on a case-by-case basis, a positive with cell phones has come about with the use of the SafeUT app, which allows anyone to anonymously report tips of harassment, suicide, threats, family crisis, bullying and other issues.
“Granite has a 24/7 police department that can follow up on tips that are threatening, drug abuse, cutting, suicide and welfare checks,” he said, adding that the district is receiving more tips — about 1,000 last year — than their anonymous text line that has been in place for years. “We’ve had three instances where classmates have tipped us off and saved lives.”
At nearby Murray School District, spokeswoman D Wright said social media is a concern.
“Messaging incorrectly is something everybody is concerned about,” she said. “Our principals have jurisdiction first, then if needed, the school district and others are brought in. We look at the individual and what the best outcome is for our student.”
Elk Meadows Elementary’s Aaron Ichimura, who has been a principal for six years in Jordan School District, said he has occasionally had to deal with postings on social media.
“Usually, it’s rude comments like so and so should have something bad happen because the student may be unhappy with something that happened at recess, but they could be back to being best friends the next day,” he said. “When it disrupts what’s going on at school, we bring in the students and parents and discuss respect, responsibility and safety. We’ve had a couple times where we can delete a post, but they also learn that once something is online, it can be there forever.”
Alta High Principal Brian McGill, in Canyons District, said each grade level has a digital citizenship plan and policies are reviewed annually. The school hosts, as many do throughout the Salt Lake Valley, a Netsmartz assembly where students learn about the responsibilities of social media.
While McGill said that sometimes the line is carefully walked with students’ First Amendment rights, there will be questions asked if there is a statement, for example to a teacher, that is defamatory or threatening.
“We will ask questions on the intent and perception and note if this is a kind of message that people will take offense,” he said.
Murray School District Prevention Specialist Deb Ashton said mental health is becoming a big concern for their students as the district has instituted a national program to help with the social and emotional well-being of students.
“A lot of decisions go into which evidence-base programs we use, and we research the issues being addressed and the need for bully and cyberbully prevention,” she said.
Suicide prevention also has been part of Murray District’s push as suicide is the leading cause of death for secondary school students, Ashton said.
“We work with students and parents getting referrals and the tools they need to get help,” she said. “This is our first year with school-based mental health clinicians in our schools. With the high rate of suicide, we see mental health issues intertwined with depression and our students are struggling with the issues, so we’re making it easier for them to get help.
“The more we can help the students, the more they will succeed academically. We’re looking into helping the child in all areas. I don’t think everyone is aware of the goal to provide a safe education, in all aspects of the word, that prepares students for career, college and post high school training.”
In Jordan School District, spokeswoman Sandy Riesgraf said that there is a health and wellness task force looking at ways to improve the social, physical and mental well-being of schoolchildren.
“If kids aren’t taken care of, they can’t learn,” she said. Jordan district added 36 psychologists this year so every elementary has a full-time health and mental professional to match those already in place at the secondary schools.
“We’re learning that students may be feeling down, but they don’t know why, or they feel they can’t live up to an image, or deal with peer pressure. We want them to talk about it, work it out, so they feel safe and secure,” Riesgraf said.
Teachers also are trained to be aware of mental health and suicide as well as emergency safety, she said.
Riesgraf said that a $1 million training was approved by the Jordan Board of Education in an effort to best provide students a safe environment.
“We work intensely with local law enforcement, meeting weekly with police and finding ways to enhance students’ safety and how best to respond to an emergency,” she said. “We also want our students to know if they ‘see something, say something.’ We don’t want them to be afraid, but to come forward for everyone’s safety.”
Elk Meadows Principal Ichimura said the training was beneficial.
“We know what steps to take and we conduct regular drills from fire to intruder to earthquake so we’re all more familiar with what we should be doing,” he said.
Canyons School District sends postcards home, explaining drills so parents are aware of what is being done.
And while a number of schools have increased safety in their schools from more surveillance cameras and installing security vestibules, Corner Canyon High in Draper invited police to help prepare teachers for an intruder drill.
“We had police fire simulated rounds in different parts of the school, so they would know what it sounded like and practice how they should respond,” Corner Canyon High Principal Darrell Jensen said. “We also had all our faculty become first aid trained, so if there is an emergency, they can respond.”
Besides cyberbullying, in-person bullying still occurs in most schools. Last year, teenagers drove by a Viewmont Elementary boy walking to his Murray home, calling him names with racial slurs and hateful remarks. Led by his mother and coach, a large outpouring of support came to his aid, walking him home days later.
Former Viewmont Principal Matt Nelson responded, planning to make tolerance part of the school curriculum.
“Together, we can stand up and rally together to show our acceptance and support for our students,” Nelson said. “We talk about intolerance and racism and the need for inclusion. It’s our differences that make us stronger. We need to embrace them.”
While that occurred outside of the school, Wright said that each incident is a concern that they review.
Similarly, Alta principal McGill addressed alleged racial slurs yelled earlier this year from fans at the Sky View girls soccer team during a game against Alta. After identifying fans who were at the game from photographs, he launched a 40-hour to 50-hour inquiry.
“We fully investigated the situation,” he said. “I interviewed 25 individuals, 12 parents, both teams and coaches, the referee and although not one person sustained the comments, we didn’t stop there.”
McGill issued an apology to the other team, their coaches and their families. He also had the two teams meet to have lunch together and he has worked with his entire school to focus on sportsmanship.
“Many of the girls play club soccer together, so they know one another,” he said. “We’ve watched a USHAA video of what competition should look like at schools and our class officers and SBOs are having open, candid discussions.”
Granite’s Cottonwood High School, which has a high population of diversity including refugees, said that if a student says something derogatory, it is addressed immediately.
“We have a conversation right on the spot,” said Principal Terri Roylance, who has been an administrator for 10 years. “If the kids don’t understand their remarks, we call the parents in, but 98 percent of them understand after we talk with them.”
Although teachers are required to have many trainings and attend professional development workshops, occasionally something slips through the cracks. As was the case with Indian Hills Middle School in Sandy earlier this year when a teacher gave students a survey to get to know them better. Although students’ answers were anonymous, Principal Doug Graham said it made students and parents uncomfortable and several questions — such as religious beliefs, mental health concerns and sexual preferences — shouldn’t have been asked.
“We were honest and open,” Graham said about his handling the situation. “Things happen, but we also need to look at how we handle them. The teacher was trying to get to know her students, but in the process, mistakes were made.”
The mistakes — from asking the inappropriate questions to Graham telling her to delete all parts of the survey and its responses — were made public.
“I was thinking about shredding the survey and answers when I learned it was all online. Then, I told her to delete it and all the data as well. So, when parents wanted to see the survey, I didn’t have it,” he said. “When put in context, it explains why we did what we did, but it doesn’t excuse it.”
Graham said last year, when students were helping with a food drive, “students didn’t understand how these realities could affect classmates in their community.”
Although the teacher was trying to make a connection with the survey and her heart was in the right place to help the students, Graham said better communication and training will be put in place.
“We need to make sure it doesn’t happen again,” he said. “It’s best for our community, to admit to making a mistake, apologize, ask for their understanding and for them to have confidence in us.”
Jordan’s Riesgraf said the first step for parents who may have a concern about their student is to contact the school.
“Our parents and students are our customers and we want to address their questions and answer their concerns,” she said. “If parents don’t like a particular book in class and don’t want their children reading it, the Book Review Committee has an approved list and they can work with teachers to find an alternative book. If there’s a fight, schools are best to handle it and if need be, the school resource officer, and can help provide intervention and counseling.”
Roylance said that with the diverse Cottonwood High student body, there is a need to provide students with other assistance — food, personal hygiene, clothing and school supplies.
“Two years ago, our studentbody president, Katie Metcalf, saw the need for our students,” she said. “Two parents, Robyn Ivins and Jane Metcalf, now oversee the pantry and if they put out the word that we need tuna, then an ocean of tuna floods our room in two days. Our community is responding to the need of our students.”
Roylance said the pantry, fondly called the “cement room,” is open two days per week and an “army of students” get the supplies they need.
“We welcome anyone. I’ve had teachers bring their whole class down. I’ve opened up the door to a family on a special circumstance during spring break to load up with what they need. If someone forgets their lunch or they’re staying for a volleyball game, they can come in and grab food or if they need a notebook for class, it’s here for them,” she said.
At Jordan District, distribution of pantry needs may be subtler, especially when the student is concerned about being identified.
“We may take and fill a backpack full of food, personal hygiene, bus passes, clothing, whatever we can provide, and others are unaware of that student’s need,” Riesgraf said. “We want to provide the supplies they need. When students are hungry or worried about their next meal, it weighs heavily on them and it’s hard to study.”
Pantries are becoming common place in many schools, mostly stocked with food or clothing — even at Ridgecrest Elementary in Cottonwood Heights, what is seen as a more affluent community than at Cottonwood.
“We deal with the homeless every year,” Ridgecrest Principal Julie Winfree said. “When I first came here, I didn’t realize it would be part of my job at Ridgecrest, but we work with other school’s supplies to provide our students in need with food and clothing. There are no boundaries for those in need. Everyone works together to make sure our students get what they need and share with our families in need.”
Horsley said in Granite District, the need is present as is the need to provide workshops for students and families on several issues — mental health and suicide, substance abuse, bullying, internet safety, child abuse and college and career ready awareness.
“Our goal is to help provide resources and information to our community,” he said. “The world has changed. We have 62 percent of our students in free or reduced lunch and, in reality, we have kids go hungry and often times, that translates into behavioral issues. If we can provide the resources, skills and knowledge, we can create a better environment for our students to learn and succeed.”