Over 19,000 students will begin the school year at schools in the Mat-Su Borough School District this fall, and one of the main priorities for Superintendent Dr. Monica Goyette is to keep all 19,000 students safe. Goyette detailed the long history of safety improvements in MSBSD schools, at a recent borough meeting, illustrating that the school district’s practices, policies, and close working relationship with Law Enforcement is no coincidence.
“It’s not that we started this last year or the year before or it was terrible events that instigated us or motivated us into doing things, it’s been happening continuously and I feel like that’s really important for families just to be reminded of,” said Goyette.
MSBSD began its district-wide safety coordination in 1997. It focuses on prevention and preparedness for threats in schools. The district added a Safety Resource Officer at Wasilla High School in 2005, which has been a safety success that is spreading throughout the district as the population of the Mat-Su Valley continues to grow. Currently, local police officers from the Wasilla and Palmer Police departments serves as SRO’s at Wasilla and Palmer, as of last year. Goyette plans to increase that number in the coming years, and aid in school safety personnel by hiring safety coordinators at all middle and high schools within the next five years.
MSBSD will have additional SRO’s in the coming school year as well. Houston Jr./Sr. High School will have an SRO in August, and Colony Middle and High schools will be staffed with an SRO in January. Each police officer serving as an SRO in MSBSD schools has the responsibility of monitoring the neighboring middle and elementary schools, as well. The SRO’s do not only function as a safety resource during the school day, but can work their hours around when they are needed. Additional safety staff is on hand at all after-school activities such as sporting events and dances, often including the SRO. Goyette says that the police in schools have served a number of positive purposes. The police serving in SRO positions are active in school fire and safety drills and able to provide their own input and safety suggestions. While an actual emergency is rare, it speeds up response time to have so many repetitions of practice with law enforcement officers. That is not the only benefit Goyette hopes that the students get from sharing their building with a police officer.
“Our hope is that it just deters criminal activity from occurring,” said Goyette. “Another benefit is that many students have a negative view of law enforcement and we’re hoping that by having just a day to day interaction with a police officer that they can really view them as a resource.”
Not only has MSBSD focused on hiring more safety personnel, but offering additional training to existing staff to help keep students safe. Each school has their own email monitoring system that flags threatening messages and directs them to MSBSD Public Information Officer Jillian Morrissey and the principal of the school itself. Goyette categorizes that email monitoring system among the policies in place to prevent threats in schools. Goyette brought up a national trainer last school year to implement threat assessment protocol and train staff to put together a team of people to meet with a student and determine whether a threat is viable. MSBSD also implemented a tip line last year for anonymous information to be shared with the school district. Among the preparedness aspects of MSBSD safety, Goyette said that every principal, counselor and school psychologist in the district receives training in risk assessment in determining the needs of the individual juxtaposed against the good of the whole.
“More times than not it’s not a viable threat that they made, it was a poor choice in the moment that still can have some lifelong consequences for them,” said Goyette. “Threats of harm in schools has always been around. I mean, kids used to write it on the bathroom stall and now they post it on social media.”
With multiple cyber threats causing attendance outages at MSBSD schools in 2018, Goyette is focused on keeping the students within MSBSD safe by adding additional safety personnel, training the current staff, and upgrading the equipment around the school district. Nearly 1,000 security cameras have been installed since the original 100 security cameras were installed in 2010. Buses were equipped with GPS systems in 2011, and MSBSD implemented Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate (ALiCE) protocols in 2014. In 2015, the MSBSD created a Safety and Emergency Preparedness position, which has since been filled by Steve Paine, who functions as the liaison between the school district and law enforcement during incidents. Paine is also charged with examination of each school site for safety concerns yearly. MSBSD added remote locking systems that were piloted at two elementary schools and added to another 10 this summer. The last 10 elementary schools will receive remote door locking systems next summer. The MSBSD School Board has approved $10 million in capital projects improvements over the last five years. Goyette mentioned that when the 22 legislators held session at Wasilla Middle School, she received compliments on how well the building was maintained. A challenge troubling Alaskan schools that is unique is the possibility of pesky wildlife such as a persistent moose hanging out at a rural elementary school.
“There was a person that was out there that we allowed a permit to have a weapon locked up so that is not something that we have in all of our schools but there is a policy in place that allows us to do that for remote schools,” said Goyette.
One of the new challenges of keeping schools safe is responding to threats at any hour of the day. The tip line that was instituted last year has helped school district staff gather information.
“A lot of what occurs in terms of students making threats of harm to self or others occurs through social media and so a downfall of social media is that word spreads quickly, but also an upside of that is that we get word very quickly from students and from family members,” said Goyette.
The prevention and preparedness methods of the school district can only reach so far, but Goyette wants to keep families informed of any threat that might be happening at a school their child is attending. Any time a threat of harm is made, law enforcement presence has been on site prior to the school and lasted throughout the school day. Each time a threat has been identified, mass notifications were sent out to parents to inform them of the possibility of a threat. Goyette wants to educate the MSBSD students, but knows they must be safe to learn and respects the choice of the parents to protect their children.
“It is a parent’s choice to keep their kids home and I respect that and you know in the situation we had a couple cyber threats last spring and attendance was very low that following day and that’s a consequence of that,” said Goyette.”I think our goal is just to continue to try and do prevention and really educate our students if you disrupt a school like that for a day, the consequences are significant and they include criminal charges.”
Among all of the increased facility upgrades, staff training, additional staff, and relationship with law enforcement, the MSBSD is not only reacting to threats but working to catch problem behaviors before they become violent. MSBSD is also ramping up it’s behavioral health staff and training to help tend to the needs of the students.
“Increasing behavioral health — it’s not just that response, the preparedness that we can to respond to an event but really a lot of these are grounded in mental health issues for students that are making these threats,” said Goyette.