Think About It: Safety first … but when?

Last summer, I listened to an interview of a man whose daughter was shot and killed during the Parkland shooting. Grief was etched in his face but his voice spoke words that were channeling his grief into action. The words were for his daughter and all the parents who could lose a child in a horrific shooting.

He and other parents were determined to prevent a similar carnage occurring again in Parkland or any other school in their state. They aren’t focused on arming teachers, gun control regulations or even mental health issues.

Instead, they are focused on safety in the school and what mechanisms could be brought to the school to better equip the school to keep as many children as possible safe.

This group of parents wasn’t any different than the parents of Sequim school children who came together after the Parkland shooting to work with the school and community for the safety of their children. They love their children and want them safe.

The only difference was that Parkland parents were too late; their children were dead. The Sequim parents recognized that it could be them and committed themselves to work with the school to put in place proactive measures that would save the lives of kids in a shooting.

A sense of urgency

Soon after Parkland, Sequim Parents for Safe School was formed and held five public forums between February and May. They gathered together key stakeholders including Gary Neal, superintendent of Sequim School District (SSD), SSD board members, Chief of Police Sherry Crain, Chief of Fire District 3 Ben Andrews, State Patrol, Olympic Ambulance and other parents of Sequim school children.

The group agreed on a goal of establishing a proactive approach to school safety in the event of a shooting. Their product was the identification of five actions that could be implemented quickly, easily and inexpensively.

The parents opened a GoFundMe account to collect donations to fund the cost of items not in the school budget. They wanted to clear out any obstacle to meeting their goal which now called for the implementation of the five safety measures by the beginning of the school year in September.

1. Lockdown buckets for each classroom

2. Blackout window coverings for each classroom door

3. Identified as MOST important – a locking device that allows the teacher to lock the room from inside the classroom which typically requires a teacher to enter the hallway to lock the door.

4. Updated fire drill procedures so that students don’t become a group target for a shooter and

5. Threat awareness training for teachers and students.

I learned about Sequim Parents for School Safety and its general dissatisfaction with implementation delays in late July. I was drawn to the parents’ compelling goal to keep their children safe and curious about the delay, which turned out to be a what I believe involved a stalled system and failures to communicate.

Unanticipated obstacle in path

I visited with Tracy Swanson and Jamie D’Amico, two mothers of Sequim school children who have taken the lead in the implementation plans. Tracy serves as the group’s spokesperson and primary liaison. Jamie is the resident security expert, who, along with her husband, operate Security Services NW in Sequim.

I became as mystified and curious as they were about why clear recommendations that came out of a well-defined group process were ignored or, worse, forgotten. I also was confounded that the parent group was left without a responsible contact person to help them understand the implementation plan.

But nothing stops these worried parents. They were not going to let it drop. They applied pressure to act on the recommendation for the type of inside locks that could withstand the bureaucracy of fire codes.

My own exploration into the points of “lock” approval and finding the responsible person was like wading through a pile of wet socks looking for a foot. I did manage to get a helpful clarification from the city fire marshal about what it takes for her to approve the “lock” which I forwarded to everyone involved.

All roads, whether “the lock,” or communication, led to Sequim schools superintendent Gary Neal. I had the opportunity to ask him about the issues and the parent group’s need and desire for direction and reassurance that something would happen to improve school safety. He said he understood and shared the parent group’s concern and explained that there were steps that had to be taken before the recommendations could be implemented. He planned to schedule a meeting with them soon.

That was Aug. 7 and, in response, to my sending out the explanatory email from the city fire marshal, he replied to all that he would have a meeting set up. That was Aug. 15.

School was about to start and no word of a meeting. Tracy wrote an email to Neal and School Board President Brian Kuh on Aug. 21 outlining the recommendations and requesting clarification of the school district’s plans. Neal responded Aug. 27 with a plan to set up a meeting with the group.

No meetings were set up in August or September. The parent group didn’t stop its effort and uncovered a potential resource for funding the “lock” and reminded the superintendent and school board president in an email on Sept. 27.

Neal responded with a plan to contact the group soon.

Tracy sent another email to Neal and all the board members summarizing the recommendations on Oct. 1 and suggesting that the parents might get a better response to a written description.

Tracy and Jamie were notified of a meeting scheduled for Oct. 16 on Oct. 15. They hurriedly redid their plans; it was a meeting not to miss after two-and-a-half months of promises of meetings.

Neal, Kuh, a designated school safety person and the moms met. I received an email from Tracy that was nearly joyous in tone. Neal agreed to meet with the city about “the locks” and required permit, which turns out to be extensive. He said he would meet with the fire marshal within the next two weeks.

I met with Tracy and Jamie on Oct. 30. No word yet, but they are hopeful. Hopeful and relentless in pursing safety for their children. They have good reasons to keep the pressure up, reasons they wake up in the morning and send off to school.

Epilogue

One of the moms was driving west on Hendrickson Road during a recent school fire drill. She stopped and filmed the kids exiting the school.

We looked at the film. The students appeared as dark figures lined up within easy reach of a cowardly shooter.

We fell silent. It was too much to think about, let alone imagine.

Bertha Cooper spent her career years as a health care organization and program administrator and consultant and is a featured columnist in Sequim Gazette. Cooper has lived in Sequim with her husband for nearly 20 years. Reach her at columnists@sequimgazette.com.

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