New chapters of school safety

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BRIAN WALKER/Press Lakeland Joint School District Assistant Superintendent Lisa Sexton, center, listens to Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office Deputy and School-Resource Officer Doug Goodman speak to nearly 100 people during a town hall meeting on school safety at Timberlake High School in Spirit Lake on Wednesday night.

By BRIAN WALKER

Staff Writer

SPIRIT LAKE — Gary Farley went to Wednesday night's town hall meeting hosted by Lakeland Joint School District to seek answers in light of last month's mass shooting at a Florida high school.

"Are you going to allow armed staff at the schools and, if not, are you willing to let the voters decide?" Farley, the parent of three children who attend school in the district, asked presenter and Assistant Superintendent Lisa Sexton.

Sexton told Farley the budget is always a hurdle, but school leaders are discussing the possibility with the school board.

Pressing further, Farley wanted to know a timeline, and Sexton said, if approved by the board, it could be rolled out in the fall.

Nearly 100 people, including parents, law enforcement, school leaders and a few students, attended the town hall on school safety at Timberlake High School.

Lakeland, like other area school districts, has school-resources officers, but Farley said that, since one officer has to cover multiple buildings, he doesn't believe the coverage is sufficient.

"I expect a child to be safe at school like he or she is at home," he said after the meeting.

Farley said he realizes hiring more school resource officers is costly, so he believes willing school staff who want to be trained and qualify to be armed should be allowed to.

"We have the resources right here to initiate the training," he said.

Sexton said the school district is lobbying Kootenai County for funding to hire another SRO.

"We're all in this together," she said.

Critics of arming school staff believe that step won't reduce the shootings, however, as many occur with SROs on site. Some law enforcement leaders also believe responders could mistake the armed staffer as the suspect.

Sexton said the district is also exploring whether to equip teachers with non-lethal weapons such as wasp spray that can temporarily blind the suspect. Flashing beacons outside signifying a school is on lockdown are slated to be implemented later this year.

Sexton said the district has implemented more security features, drills and training over the years, but is being as aggressive as it can to find ways to improve safety and communication more.

She said after the Florida shooting the district had three threats. Peers, parents and the students were interviewed by law enforcement. If they were deemed to be dangerous, a psychologist was then called upon. Homes and accessibility to weapons are often checked and, in some cases, the students aren't allowed to bring backpacks to schools.

"We take all threats seriously," she said.

Citing a case in Seattle in which a grandmother contacted law enforcement about a student's alarming journal, Sexton called upon students and family members to also contact police immediately when there are red flags.

"That grandma saved lives," she said. "It takes a whole village to keep our kids safe."

Schools across the country, including locally, are planning demonstrations against gun violence after the Florida incident. Ryne Eberlin, recently named principal at Timberlake High, said students there are planning a 40-minute assembly inside the school. Also, next week is Friendship Week with teen activities.

Sexton said students were born after the Columbine incident, so they've grown up in a society in which school shootings are commonplace.

"We want students to have the opportunity to have a voice, but we'd like them inside and to do it in a safe way," she said.

At the elementary level, students plan to write sympathy letters to families of the victims.

Sexton read a letter that a retired teacher sent to students, asking them, rather than walking out to protest, to consider being nice to that student who is eating lunch alone.

"Gun control and more laws are not the answer; you're the answer," the letter states. "Look past yourself and past your phone and look into the eyes of a student no one else sees. If you need to walk, walk toward that person."

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