School Safety At Top Of Officials' Minds


About 40 people showed up on a cold and rainy Friday night at the Payson High School auditorium to hear Payson school officials talk about safety measures now in place and what they plan to do to protect students.

They heard that there are a number of things the district is doing to make schools safer. They also heard that no one can be truly safe.

The reality of the April 20 massacre of 13 people at a Colorado high school has shown just how vulnerable the nation's schools are.

Although many of the administrators said they felt there was no safer place to be than in Payson, there was concern after a week spent chasing down rumors of threats.

"We don't want to scare them, but we want to assure their safety," said Dean Pederson, Payson Unified School District health specialist.

Pederson said the events in Littleton, Colo. have "caused us all to hurt in ways we never hurt before."

Payson Police Chief Gordon Gartner was also on hand to talk about the measures police were taking in the wake of the tragedy at Columbine High School.

Gartner, who has been in police work for 26 years, said he is concerned. "I'm concerned personally. This is not understandable --we don't know how to put our fingers on it. We don't know what the cause is."

He said police officers work with the schools on a regular basis, mostly on preventive issues. Seven DARE officers are intimately involved with the school district and students. Police officers volunteer with Little League and take students on field trips.

School administrators said the police are at the scene within minutes of being called to any of the schools. "They've been great," said Roy Sandoval, principal of Payson Elementary School.

A quick response to situations at the schools and the needs of students is one of the things school officials are working on.

Rim Country Middle School Principal Frank Larby said, "The day after Littleton, we felt it was important to make a statement to our students. My primary message to our students was, they need to keep talking."

By lunch time that day, school officials at the middle school had heard about a boy with a switch blade knife. He was disciplined that afternoon.

Mike Wheelis, director of personnel and student services for PUSD, said school officials have been busy all week answering phone calls from concerned parents. They have also been chasing down rumors about gangs and bomb threats, stories that got out of hand based on a minimum of information.

Payson High School Principal Phil Gille said the rumors created fear. "It went from 'it could happen in Payson' to 'it is going to happen in Payson.'"

Gille told the group that he had spent 80 percent of his time the previous week with phone calls.

He and others in the Payson School District say they have done much toward making schools safe. And they plan to do more.

Gille said one thing that has contributed to school safety is a concerted effort at discipline.

"When I first came here 10 years ago, there were fights all the time," he said. "I have dealt with guns, bomb threats, and fights and expelled many students." He said the school board has backed him up and has taken a tough stand. "We watch for dress and don't allow gang dress."

Gille talked about the district's emergency plan and said that the district was among the first to institute a lock-down plan in case of emergency.

The high school does not have a cafeteria or a place where many students can gather at one time. This, said Gille, works to keep students safe in the event of an attack.

Gille said the faculty works with students on a regular basis trying to eliminate prejudice based on color or on sex. He told the parents that when their children come to school, they should feel a part of it.

He also talked about the district's plan to begin a program in October, "Days of Respect", a program out of Oakland, Calif. He called for volunteers to learn about the community program and to work with students.

Larby said he felt the greater threat was drugs, violence and hate. "We need everyone involved with communications," he said.

Contrary to what many may think, it's not good grades that make a student a success in life, Gille said. "There's a good correlation between involved students and success."

He suggested that parents, peers and others get students involved with youth leagues and sports, and becoming part of the community and school. He asked for more parental involvement.

Lock-downs at RCMS
RCMS Principal Larby told the group that no one can predict what's going to happen. "But you can try to prevent it," he said.

He called the middle school environment a safe one and talked about Payson Police Officer David Blalock, who helps the schools get a big picture of what's going on in town.

A telephone in each classroom in the middle school provides teachers with the ability to call emergency personnel quickly. Administrators carry cel phones and school officials carry two-way radios out around the activity field.

"We practice our lockdown drill procedure," Larby said. "The doors are locked -- the windows are covered. We let no one in a class room." Teachers at the ends of the hallways can lock down the outside doors, if necessary.

Guidance counselors at the middle school identify students they believe to be "at risk" and group counseling gives students the opportunity to share their problems.

"We give them a forum to develop their own paths," Larby said.

Payson Elementary School Principal Roy Sandoval said he chose to practice a lock-down recently when the students were out of their classrooms for a science fair.

"Practice makes perfect," he said. "We need parental involvement. We closely supervise these kids 6 1/2 hours a day."

Sandoval talked about a young student who got in trouble with a teacher for using a bad word. When Sandoval asked the boy where he'd learned the word, the boy said he'd heard it in a movie, "Bordello of Blood."

"What's happening the other 9 1/2 hours that this kid is awake?" Sandoval asked.

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