I come into school February 15th, and I feel vulnerable, completely open. I hear my peers say “It won’t happen to us,” “It’s okay.” But the truth of the matter is that it is not okay and it could happen to any single school. And it happened to those 17 children in Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida. 17 lives were abruptly taken on February 14th; lives that will never be brought back. This event has sparked a movement, a change that is and has been desperately needed in our schools.
Walkersville High School Principal Tracey Kibler spoke to the Walkersville community the evening of March 5th to address concerns and fears in an “informal” Principal Chat. Kibler addressed the immediate concerns in response to American school tragedies, emergency/crisis plans in the event of an active assailant, the mental illness and wellness in the current adolescent, the dates of the walkout taking place on March 14 and April 20, and concerns from the parent perspective.
She started the chat with the powerful statement, “For me as the high school principal, it’s one of these topics that are not going to rest well in a formal sense. There is no formal solution to what is occurring right now. We have to be honest and open with ourselves. There are new strategies. We are a true ADD (Avoid, Deny, Defend) school, not a lockdown school. I’ve had the privilege to listen to the superintendent of Newtown School District who lived through the Sandy Hook experience. I’m not going to lie, it’s scary.” Kibler made it clear that she is here to listen to the parents voice of elementary, middle, and high school students in the Walkersville community and take down all concerns.
These are very concerning times. “You don’t know what’s going to happen (in situations) with different variables,” stated Kibler. This was a huge topic during the meeting. In cases of mass murder, one can create a plan if a perpetrator comes inside the building, but every situation has its own unique variables. For example: if the school plan is to “flight,” what if there is more than one perpetrator and are shooting from outside as well. Meaning that our schools need multiple plans intact.
2018 is a different time than when our parents attended high school. Social media and the internet has become the enemy. It is addictive. My peers have become obsessed with this.
The Florida shooting has initiated these conversations, and I believe they are for the good. They are forcing people to talk about “uncomfortable” topics that desperately needs to be addressed for the mere sake of my peers to keep living. The perpetrator in Florida has a story “similar to the emotional stress of some of the kids walking among the halls at Walkersville. I work with young people everyday, and I worry for them. It’s a different time. We have to make sure our students and community understand that it’s not just about gun laws,” stated Kibler.
Although, Frederick County Public Schools has made change. Last year FCPS decided that our old practices of lockdown were outdated,” stated Kibler. And these are now updated, and Kibler tried it out two years ago. I can tell you it was terrifying. “It was an aggressive move at first, but I have no regrets,” stated Kibler. This drill prepared students and staff on how to deal with a perpetrator in the building. It was beneficial for many reasons.
The local fire departments figured out their trucks are too big for certain locations to maneuver around the school. These predetermined escape routes caused danger to students. In the act of saving kids, they would be killing them because there wasn’t enough room. During this 22 minute drill, they used to have three different reunification points, but now they have two, the firehall and the bus parking lot behind the elementary school. Walkersville Middle’s reunification points is the Staff Development Center and the Walkersville Fire Hall. Many parents were thankful. The fire departments were thankful. They now knew their routes would not have worked. Some students came home shook up, but they felt more prepared, and this drill decreased anxiety for now being prepared.
Kibler was actually part of the committee that considered the ADD plan. “I had the rare privilege working at Hood College (for a few years). I was at Hood when the Virginia Tech shooting occurred,” and through this, they decided to create a planning committee on a plan if a perpetrator was on campus. She used that experience when helping to prepare Walkersville High School.
In our building, Kibler is the first in command if an unfortunate event would occur. Kibler has made it clear that Walkersville High is not an automatic lockdown school. Kibler has brought the Avoid, Deny, and Defend program to our school.
“The first step is to get the kids out of the building, that is what is most important.” This is the Avoid step. Walkersville has over 50 exterior doors. Realistically, that is 50 doors to get out, but it is also 50 doors for a perpetrator to get in. “There may never be a solid solution to keeping people out,” Kibler stated.
Right now Walkersville High staff and administration are in the process of creating a system where important life saving announcements are not through the PA. Kibler is constantly trying to find new ways of escape if there were unique variables, such as finding the safest way out, constant perimeter checks. It is a huge risk if we evacuate and the kids go outside. Kibler wants all staff to have downloaded versions of papers on what to do in a crisis. She also wants to introduce “pictured rosters” so if a substitute is present in the time of an attack, they know who belongs in their class and who doesn’t. Another idea that was introduced in the meeting was substitute training in an event of a perpetrator coming in the building. Currently, substitutes are not as adequately trained on what to do in an unsafe situation. We are lucky enough to have a principal who has a plan, who is prepared. I can truly say, along with many others, that I feel safe if Kibler is in charge of Walkersville High.
Walkersville Middle School is a lockdown school. Meaning, if a perpetrator was inside the building, the first step is to lockdown, not flight. “But there are several areas in the building that are safe,” commented Hiltner. Walkersville High School’s next step in the ADD program is to Deny. This is the step where it is identified the best method to barricade and seal each classroom from the assailant intruding in. Kibler mentioned during the meeting the new devices on the market that go under the door that help seal the classroom. This would be an extremely costly decision, and unfortunately it is up to the Board of Education, not individual principals.
The last, final step in ADD is to defend. “I want to train our teachers to defend,” and Kibler doesn’t mean with guns. A few years ago, Kibler had members of the Sheriff department come in and train the staff, even our smallest teacher were given tactics on how to take down the perpetrator and how to deflect the threat. “It was a 45 minute training (occurring between two days) with all of the teachers. It was amazing. 80% of the staff that went through the training felt better that they had a plan,” and they knew what to do; it was no longer an untrained decision dependent on each teacher. “They need to be ready — the defend step means that it is the reality that the perpetrator is coming in. But I want to go farther than that, I want those devices that can be put on the (classroom) doors,” Kibler stated. “It’s not pretty, it’s not simple, and as we tell our teachers, there is no pre-scripted plan that will work in different situations.”
This movement starts with the students and the parents. Kids these ages don’t have real consequences. “By the time we cut them off of that (bad) behavior by age three to four, it won’t be happening in high school. Violence should be such a rarity it should be shocking again. Parents need to parent,” stated mother Gretchen Engle. If an event where something were to happen, “tell your kids to leave your bookbags, your coats, your cellphones. Tell your kids to leave their cellphones and just get out. There was a young girl killed in the Florida shooting because she went back in the classroom to retrieve her cellphone,” Kibler stated.
Kibler stated that last year, Walkersville had one of the lowest high school in incident of fighting or violent behavior in Frederick County. Although, there are still drugs and alcohol in the school. “Nobody can catch everything,” Kibler stated. Which is why, if you see something questionable on social media say something to a trusted staff member, administration, or parent.
In February, Kibler had the privilege of listening to the Superintendent of Newtown School District, Sandy Hook Elementary at the AASA National Conference. As a result she would share some words of advice from the conference with the Board of Education.
Kibler has communicated to the Board of Education that she desperately wants at least two resource officers at each school in Frederick County. One inside, and one as a deterrent outside. The problem is is that extra security is costly, but it’s a priority, but unfortunately the board won’t agree to a new rule of two officers at each school. If we are to have two resource officers located at each school, not only is it preventing a perpetrator from entering the building, it has also been shown to decrease pedophiles from lurking around the school, persons who are not supposed to trespass on the school property, and there is less reoccurrence of dropouts and graduates coming on campus. “This would be the first thing I would do if I could make this decision,” stated Kibler. If you are a member of the community and you want to make a difference, go to the next board meeting, write to the state legislation, do something impactful that’ll make a difference. One parent made the comment, “Right now we need to write to state legislation to give money to our schools, and be funded in a better way.”
As the meeting continued, the parents became more comfortable sharing their personal concerns about their children being “sitting ducks” and “easy targets.” This concern is not only shared by parents, but also students, worried for their lives.
Parent Ann Hearn exclaimed her concern about suspension and adding in school detention. Let’s say John Doe is a student who constantly gets in trouble. Today, he was suspended for four days. John Doe now is missing four days of 90 minute periods for those four days. Frederick County Public Schools does not have enough of a budget to offer in school detention. That would mean they would have to pay another teacher, or a few teachers, and a whole new classroom for the in school detention room. Now John Doe is failing all his classes. How does a student come back from that?
“It hurts when resources get cut,” stated Kibler. Kibler has no control over any funding that goes into the school; this is up to the board.
Staffing is also an issue in our school system. Every single year, staff members get cut. “We need more staff. We need more parents to advocate for more staffing. The first line of defenses is to decrease class size as much as possible so teachers know their kids. Graduates will tell you, the most impactful relationship they’ll have with a staff member in high school is a teacher,” said Kibler.
That teacher is going to make a difference forever in that student’s life. The power of relationships are impactful. It will make a difference. We need to build stronger community relationships. Schools that have passionate parents get heard. We (the administration) see through a different lens, through relationships. The walkersville community values the more intangible things,” said Kibler. “I have fought for years to keep counselors, behavioral therapists, and school support teachers,” Kibler stated. If we have these options available for our students, that student will now have someone to talk to, possibly something they don’t have at home.
The next issue is how easy the county relocates misbehaved children. Sometimes relocation works, and sometimes, it makes the student’s situation worse. If John Doe gets expelled or suspended, they get relocated to a totally different school in the county. “Our small controlled environments are limited, so when a kid gets suspended/expelled from one building, the answer is to put them in a different environment and different building. By putting them into a brand new environment, you’re giving them special transportation. Smaller programs financially may be more of the answer. Though, sometimes new environments do work. They get away from a bully or even a bullier. Sometimes, they’ll find an adult to connect with.”
Engle asked to Kibler “What can we do as parents? What do you want?” Hiltner stated “We can offer but we can’t mandate.”
Kibler brought up the topic of Portland’s Community Schools. “It’s an incredibly fascinating model. It is truly a community run district,” Kibler stated. They have buses and buildings that are called school community centers, almost like a “goodwill” of food, resources, free doctors, free medicine, and free care. The grocery store Wegmans, brings a truck to their school every day of a few days out from expiration food. “This has shown that student achievement increase and attendance increase,” Kibler stated. This district has a 58% poverty level. Our district averages around 35%.
The next concern that was addressed was the consistency of drills. The parents consensus was to drill often, and have no announcements for the drills. If the drills don’t happen, it increases anxiety and fear. But, if the drills are consistent, muscle memory will kick in. Even if your brain is scrambled, you will remember what to do. A new idea that was mentioned, is that after these drills, the administration will include a small paragraph on the monthly letters that go out about the active shooter drills and if they occurred that week. They would include talking points for parents to communicate with their kids. Although, this would not just singularity be for the high school monthly letters, it would have to be the elementary and middle school to to show uniformity.
Another extremely important topic of the meeting were the upcoming walkouts. There is a scheduled walkout coming up on March 14th. Hiltner is in the process of creating activities for something for the middle school students to do if they want to participate. As for the high school students, Kibler stated she has not decided, but, “Whatever we do, it’s got to be unified and structured. The students need to have a voice, but it cannot be told what their voice [should be].”
The last part of the chat addressed creating a committee for concerned parents to meet often and share ideas with administration to make Walkersville an overall safer school. Every meeting would address a different topic. This way every single conversation is targeted on exactly what will be communicated.
“There is no perfect solution for any of this,” stated Kibler, and if it is going to start anywhere, it is going to start at home. “It really comes down to building a sense of resiliency that tomorrow is going to be a different day,” Kibler said. We need to practice coping methods and resilience measures to help my peers in this building with what they are going through day to day, and it has to be more than having a therapist located in the school. “Community outreach is where we go next,” Kibler said. She added, “I have a responsibility and obligation to do something with the voices you expressed today. Tonight I am going to start to move change in this building,” which will hopefully domino to the rest of Frederick County.