Saline School Leaders Highlight Safety Measures

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Saline Area Schools Superintendent Steve Laatsch addresses the board with Assistant Superintendent Curt Ellis and Saline Alt High Principal Carol Melcher (Video still/SalineVideo)

Saline Area Schools officials spoke to the Board of Education about safety measures at Tuesday's meeting.

The talk came nearly two weeks after the murder of four students at Oxford High School and a little more than a week after swirling social media rumors put school district and local police officials on high alert in Saline.

School Board President Jennifer Steben introduced the presentation by offering "heartfelt condolences" to the Oxford High School community - noting it was coming on the ninth anniversary of the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., where Adam Lanza killed 26 people, including 20 young children.

Superintendent Steve Laatsch, Assistant Superintendent Curt Ellis and Saline Alternative High School Principal Carol Melcher addressed the board with a wide-ranging presentation that touched on topics including the Dec. 3  rumors of violence in Saline Schools, social-emotional wellness, community partnerships with law enforcement, to the district safety protocols and exercises, internet surveillance tools and improvements funded by the 2015 bond proposal.

"Nothing is more important than keeping our children safe. As President Steben mentioned, this is the anniversary of Sandy Hook and, two weeks ago, four students lost their lives at Oxford High School," Melcher said. "We are prepared. We are ready. We stand ready to make sure our students remain safe. But those events are grim reminders of how our world has changed and how the world looks very, very different than it did ever since Columbine in 1999."

Melcher said the district began drafting safety plans with the help of Great Lakes Homeland Security, the Saline Police Department and Pittsfield Department of Public Safety as the district was about to open the then-new high school in 2004. The plan also includes protocols for natural disasters, child abuse, fires and other issues. Every school in the district as a safety plan built of the main template. The plans include state-required fire drills, safety/security drills, severe weather drills and more. Saline Area Schools also conduct two cardiac emergency drills.

Melcher noted that preparedness lessons, taught in a non-fearful way, are given in ways that are developmentally appropriate for the students. That means at Liberty Schools, the lessons look very different in a Saline Alt High School classroom than they do in Pooh Corner.

The district uses a "train the trainer" model - meaning adults are taught first. They then guide the students through the training.

All students at the secondary level participate in ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) training.

"We ask them to use their decision-making skills to decide the most appropriate way to respond in the case of an emergency.  If it's safe for them to evacuate the building, then we encourage them to do so. If it's not safe, then we show them how to lockdown and barricade a room."

The district uses several surveillance systems to track student behavior. One of those systems - Gaggle - helped the district track the origins of the threat hoax in early December.

"Student emails, student's text messages - anything that uses the web is caught up in our Gaggle filter. It's not because we want to 'getchya.' It's just because we want to keep our students safe," Melcher said.

Gaggle flags words that alert district officials to threats. It can also alert officials to students who may be in crisis so we are able to respond to that pretty quickly," Melcher said.

Another surveillance program is the Handle With Care initiative. If a law enforcement officer encounters a child during a call, that information is forwarded to the school before the next school day.

Eduguide offers a social-emotional wellness program that filters and flags the work of students at Saline Alt High and lets teachers know if a student may need help.

Laatsch said Melcher recently told him about a drill at Saline Alt High (located in Liberty School) that exemplified how ALICE training is impacting students. Laatsch said there was an intruder drill at the school.

"When (Melcher) announced where that intruder was the students in one of the classrooms in the alternative education wing appropriately knew they had an exit window in their classroom on the first floor. All 14 kids jumped out the window and walked to their rallying point, just like they should," Laatsch said.

In the past, Laatsch said, students would have been taught to lock the door and hide in the corner of the room until the threat was over.

Ellis told the board about the ways the $67.5 million bond program has helped secure the district. At the time, the bond proposal was pitched as a way to keep Saline students safe, warm and dry.

Many school entrances were reconfigured with safety in mind. Buzzer systems and safety glass were installed. New visitor management and employee access systems were implemented. The Raptor system screens visitors and volunteers in real-time against a nation-wide sex offender list. A facial recognition was installed for Pooh Corner and the early childhood education center. The system is currently not functioning.

Bond money was used to update technology and cyber security.

Traffic flow was improved around Woodland Meadows and Heritage - an improvement made even more important with fewer students riding school buses.

Along with ALICE training, Ellis said, the district is participating in Washtenaw County Emergency Operations Plan.

Ellis spoke about the importance of strong relations with local law enforcement.

"Often times, when our school principals get a Handle With Care alert, they've already been made aware of that information because the communication is so clear between us and law enforcement," Ellis said.

Ellis said the district plans to continue using the Pittsfield Township Department of Public Safety resource officer. Over the last couple years, there had been debate about the wisdom of a resource officer.

Now, in fact, the district wants to re-establish its relationship with the Saline Police Department for a resource officer who would work at Saline Middle School, Liberty School and Heritage. That position was eliminated when Officer Dave Ringe retired and the pandemic began in March of 2020.

Ellis said the district planned to expand the use of convenient and effective promixity entrance cards and facial recognition keys in the district.

Ellis said the district was recommitting to training and drill work even before the tragedy in Oxford. Spontaneous, age-appropriate drills will take place starting in January.

Laatsch said students, parents, staff and administrators are "partners in keeping the schools safe." He reiterated what students should and shouldn't do when rumors of a threat spread on social media. (See graphics below). He said many Saline students notified trusted adults in the district - which is what they should do.

Laatsch praised the work of Saline Police Chief Jerrod Hart during the investigation of rumors on Dec. 3.

"He did a tremendous job of running point and helping us move through those scenarios, working very collaboratively with the police with the Pittsfield Department of Public Safety," Laatsch said.

Hart helped the district understand the jurisdictional issues (The district is police by police from Pittsfield, Saline, Washtenaw County and the state.)

Laatsch said a key issue is support for students who are struggling. He said the pandemic has taken a toll on many of us - especially students. He said the district worked with teachers so that teachers spent the first two weeks of instruction paying extra attention to the social-emotional wellness of students. Laatsch said counselors, social workers, teachers, support staff and administrators have been great at connecting with students. In addition, the district hired three new behaviorists to provide support for students.

"There are more behavior issues that we're seeing develop throughout the pandemic," Laatsch said. "We will continue focusing on (social-emotional wellness) to keep our schools safe."

Laatsch said the district is hosting a community conversation about school safety at 6:30 p.m., Jan. 20, in the Liberty School board room. Board members, school leaders and officials from Saline and Pittsfield Police are expected to attend. Parents and students will be encouraged to attend. The meeting will also be held over Zoom to allow remote participation.

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