Creating safe and compassionate schools

When you ask an open-ended question, there’s no telling what the responses will be.

But that’s the point, actually, in a process that Pasco County Schools used to gather different perspectives, regarding the emotional and physical safety of district students and staff.

District officials conducted a ThoughtExchange that allows participants to use technology to share their thoughts and ideas, which are then rated by participants on a five-star scale.

Assistant superintendents Betsy Kuhn and David Scanga led the efforts for the district, and they shared results of the exchange with the Pasco County School Board at a workshop in June.

Steve LaVare, an armed school safety guard, monitors the parking lot area at Sanders Elementary School in Land O’ Lakes, as parents drop off kids on the second day of school last fall. In a ThoughtExchange on school safety, Pasco County parents said they like to see armed guards in visible spots on campus. (File)

The ThoughtExchange attracted 3,416 participants who shared 2,290 thoughts.

Because of the nature of an open-ended question, participants touched on a wide range of topics, said Kuhn, assistant superintendent for support services.

“Some people viewed it very much on the building hardening topic, that I work mostly with —  and then a lot of other folks took it as the mental health type of approach,” Kuhn said.

One of the top thoughts overall was this: “Do not arm teachers. We cannot expect teachers to make the ‘right decision’ in the heat of the  moment.”

But that thought wasn’t universally shared, according to the ThoughtExchange. Another comment from community was this: “Allow the teachers to carry a gun. Not all teachers are cut out for it, but some are. Require training and qualifications, but it should be allowed, if the teacher wants it.”

A thought that resonated with parents was this one: “We need to take more action when bullying is reported. We need to listen to students and teachers. Bullying is at the core of many issues of mental health and violence.”

Another top thought in the parents’ category: “Keep the resource officer in a high visibility spot.”

Among students, improved bandwidth and longer lunch periods were among the most highly rated comments.

Staff comments gaining traction dealt with providing more support for teachers dealing with disruptive, disrespectful or potentially dangerous students.

And, this staff comment was rated highly, too: “The pay scales for staff need a major overhaul.”

Besides being broken down by stakeholder category, the ThoughtExchange was analyzed by region.

In West Pasco, for instance, a key concern related to traffic safety at River Ridge High School.

In East Pasco, concerns were raised about securing open campuses.

And, in Central Pasco, there were calls to increase the ways to report concerns anonymously, and for greater support of teachers.

When it comes to student safety, the district was encouraged to include bus drivers in those discussions.

“Bus drivers many times are the first people students see in the morning. Include them in all discussions regarding student safety, as well,” says a comment in the exchange.

The ThoughtExchange is intended to help inform the district’s work, provide feedback from the community and gather information to help the district advocate for additional support from the state legislature for safety improvements.

Kuhn told board members that the district is continuing to take action aimed at creating safer and more secure campuses.

On the facilities side, work on front office hardening continues. The district also is installing additional security cameras and is doing safety projects at strategic locations across the county, Kuhn said.

The work on door locks at all schools is expected to be completed before school starts in August, Kuhn said. The district also continues to collaborate with the sheriff’s office and municipal police departments.

On the mental health side, a theme that emerged in the ThoughtExchange was the request “for more people, more psychologists, more social workers, more assistance,” said Scanga, who is assistant superintendent for elementary schools.

“We know that’s something we need to explore and talk about. We know where that’s coming from, but it also runs up against our budget and what we can afford,” Scanga said.

Still, he added, “there’s room for us to consider how we utilize the people we already have in the system. What gap or what void can they fill to make sure we’re addressing student needs and family needs?”

The school board will explore that topic in deeper detail, when it has its workshop on mental health on July 23.

Published July 10, 2019

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