“What would you do if there was a shooting at a school?” she said.
The panel of Washoe County School District employees who were the target of her inquiry opened their eyes wide and mentally scrambled for an answer. It was WCSD Police Chief Mike Mieras who smiled at the young girl’s question as he leaned into the microphone to ease her mind.
“We go out and do hours of training in the schools and teach the staff what to do,” Mieras said to the Diedrichsen Elementary School student. “When the school is up to our standards they will have an emergency response team at the school who will respond to the situation first.”
Mieras went on to explain some of the training and preparation his officers and teams go through during the WCSD School Safety Forum Thursday. The forum was the fourth in a series of five held by the WCSD. The events are designed to educate the public about the daily procedures and safety measures within the district.
“What we learned in one of our previous sessions was we have no training for our day-to-day substitutes,” Superintendent Pedro Martinez said. “Even though we do the drills and train our long-term substitutes, if we have substitutes that go from one building to another, we don’t necessarily provide training for them. That is something we are going to change right away, but again those are some of the questions we got because the parents experienced that first hand.”
Principals Jonna AuCoin of Sierra Vista Elementary School, Kevin Carroll of Sparks Middle School and Wanda Shakeenab of Sparks High School joined Superintendent Martinez, Chief Mieras, Emergency Manager Tracy Moore, Counseling Coordinator Katherine Louden and Chief Capital Projects Officer Mark Stanton for Thursday’s forum. The panel was able to offer different perspectives and answers to parents' questions about safety, which included topics such as single-point-of-entry schools, metal detectors, the Sandy Hook tragedy, emergency training and much more.
Paula Steenis was one parent who raised several concerns and questions to the panel throughout the night. Alongside her daughter Jaeda, who also attends Diedrichsen Elementary School, Paula said her purpose for coming was purely educational.
“It was wanting ask some of the questions I had on my mind and I thought people would help spell out anything I hadn’t thought of,” Steenis said, following the meeting.
She said she was walking out of the forum much more informed on the procedures of the School Police and the workings behind emergency preparation. She said finding out facts such as the 38 police officers who are on duty for the WCSD helped ease her mind.
“I feel good that they are working on it,” she said. “It’s not like I don’t feel that we are safe there. I just feel like we have to be preventative for our kids. They are young and they count on us.”
Steenis was one parent who wanted to delve deeper into the WCSD’s reaction to the tragedy at Sandy Hook, saying she thought the children should have been told, via assembly, that their school was safe. Louden, who spearheaded the counseling efforts after the event, said it was a difficult time to make universal decisions.
“We as a community, along with rest of the nation, were really grieving about the events that took place,” Louden said. “We had parents who wanted us to talk to the kids, especially at the upper grades, and we also had some parents in the younger grades saying ‘don’t talk to them about it.’
“What we did as a school district was work together on some talking points for students and for parents and talking points for teachers and counselors. What we wanted to do was provide support and encouragement, but we also wanted to recognize that parents should have some control of what type of media they wanted released to their children, and when to do so.”
All of the panel members stressed the importance of communication being the backbone of school safety. The principals were able to offer insight as to how communication works at different grade levels.
“I think a lot of the safety of the school is the culture of the school and it’s if you have the trust of the kids,” AuCoin said. “If they know something is going on and they alert the teacher you have that community, and that is more effective than having a metal detector because there are ways around that. If you have the community within your school, and you have that relationship with your parents and teachers, then you talk about it all the time.”
AuCoin also said that having officers who handle children regularly “brings down the anxiety” in the school because the children feel safe. Carroll agreed and added that his, and the school’s, relationship with the School Police has been vital to being incident free.
“Response from our police is incredible,” Carroll said. “We had an incident in our school the other day where a man on our campus was taking pictures of children trying to find suspects of vandalism. I asked one of our officers to be there to make sure he wasn’t out taking pictures of our students, and also to reassure our students and everybody that we were taking it seriously. It was neat also because the kids were coming out to talk to him and ask for stickers and stuff.”
Sparks High principal Shakeenab cited an incident of a sniper on the roof of a property across the street from the school as an example of how quickly the communication at her school works. She said her secretaries and teachers were well trained to lockdown the school and the emergency response team was very prepared.
“I can tell you that our school police officers are highly visible and the partnership is wonderful,” Shakeenab said. “Prior to school, the patrolman is out there making sure things are safe. I can make a phone call and they will be right there. Our officer does serve as a sort of mentor to our students along with the ability to walk up to them and talk things out.”
Moore, who is in charge of emergency training, said the School Police try to “train realistic” in order to be prepared for a real situation, and to “find mistakes.” He said his department is not in the interest of waiting for a safety threat to occur before enhancing safety measures.
“I hate to say it, but to the teaching portions of our job (Sandy Hook) is hard-core evidence of why we constantly drill these schools,” Moore said. “These teachers now understand and think ‘that is why they made me go through all of that training.’ It is a horrible thing that we have to go through.
“We do have a lot of measures in place and sometimes we don’t know the best way to share that information. I like it because I hear questions and concerns coming from the parents and we are able to go into the schools now and make the changes.”