Mixed feelings about school safety in Columbia - Republic-Times | News

Mixed feelings about school safety in Columbia

By on May 2, 2018 at 2:08 pm

Some expressed confidence in the administration’s ability to keep the schools safe. Others shared frustrations with a lack of initiative toward increasing security within the Columbia School District.

Regardless of the opinion, worry or suggestion, Columbia parents had the opportunity to make their voices heard during a school safety forum last Tuesday at Columbia Middle School. More than 50 people attended the forum.

The event comes on the heels of a falling out between the district and a group of Columbia High School parents concerned over the lack of communication regarding a recent school threat, which resulted in the two-year expulsion of a student. 

Columbia school superintendent Dr. Gina Segobiano told parents she would make more of an effort to keep them informed. 

“Parents, trust me, I heard you loud and clear. This is the first time this has ever happened where we had social media takeover,” she said. “I’m learning that aspect as well. I can assure you at no time were your children in any imminent danger. 

“I will learn from this experience and do my best as long as the police department basically is OK with my communication and it does not compromise that situation. I will vow to do my best to get things out sooner.”

Columbia Deputy Police Chief Jason Donjon said the school district can send out a notification letting parents know the students are safe as long as no specifics of the case are disseminated.

Monroe County State’s Attorney Chris Hitzemann told the Republic-Times he also shares with parents who contact him that information is being exchanged between the school district and his office to ensure student safety.

With the most recent student threat, Hitzemann said at the forum that he explained to between 50 and 75 parents wanting to know about his investigation that he is bound by confidentiality.

Contacted by the Republic-Times about communication and other school safety matters, Segobiano responded that the intent of the forum was to show  everyone in the community has a role in keeping the schools safe.

“Each person has a role to promote a safe learning environment, with communication being the key. ‘See Something, Say Something’ should be followed by everyone so that school officials are alerted to any comment or action that would jeopardize student safety,” she said.

SchoolGuard app founder Nate McVicker spoke during the forum about the school district not utilizing his invention, which includes a panic button feature for smartphone users. 

The district served as the pilot for testing the app in 2014.

“You guys have the service. I encourage teachers to use it, watch it and study it,” he said. 

Currently, McVicker, who has two kids in the district, is donating the app and has provided stickers to be displayed at every building to alert people of the app. McVicker said he did not see these stickers at the schools.

“Is it going to prevent something? No, but what it’s going to do is it’s a constant reminder to staff that they do have the app on their phone,” he explained, adding it can serve as a deterrent to someone considering shooting up a school.

“We will do a better job of promoting it,” Gina responded. “However, right now, the stickers we’ve received are two weeks old. 

“And we’re trying to figure out — we need some new entry signs as far as — right now we have a piece of paper at the high school that’s taped up there so we’re looking to have it be a little bit more professional and see how best we can have an entry that’s walkable.”  

When asked how he knew the district was not using the app, he said it is common knowledge among law enforcement in the community. The app developer also uses monitoring tools and McVicker noted the district is not using a daily communication feature on the app.

Another item brought up during the forum revolves around allowing a child — who made a significant threat against other students — to return to school after the term of his expulsion ends.

“If there is any fear that there is still a concern, the school district, administration, as well as support services, meet with the family and the teachers and create a safety plan (before the student returns to school),” Segobiano replied. “A safety plan again is very private and it requires restrictive hallway monitoring, backpack — a lot of different things that the school district does.”

Columbia parent Tina Hicks said she asked the question of Segobiano because she wanted to ensure the district has a general plan in place in these situations. Hicks said she felt her question was not adequately answered.

“I honestly don’t think a lot was accomplished,” she said of the forum afterward. “It didn’t make me feel any better than I did during a private meeting I had with (Segobiano).”

Another parent, Jeremy Donald, however, said Segobiano presented a lot of helpful information.

“It’s refreshing and it’s encouraging — the measures we have in place. I appreciate your emphasis on the social/emotional,” he said.

A grandparent and retired teacher in the district relayed the sentiment that Columbia is a safe community.

“You should be proud to live in this community. We don’t live in East St. Louis,” she said. “Aren’t you proud?”

The forum also included a presentation outlining safety protocols and trainings from Segobiano.

During her presentation, Segobiano referred to the school code of conduct as essential to keeping the schools safe. She mentioned bullying and dress codes as examples of issues covered in the code of conduct.

“If you have a strong code of conduct with consistent established rules,” she said. “And you have teachers that implement consistently and you have administration as well. 

“And I’m not talking punish, punish. I’m talking restorative. Give those kids that support. That right there is crucial to a safe and secure environment.”

Segobiano did not elaborate on what those restorative measures entail. 

Mental health resources was another item Segobiano mentioned when referring to preventative measures. Within the district, the schools have guidance counselors and social workers to support the students.

Additionally, Segobiano went through some suggestions parents brought to her attention on increasing security in the schools. At the top of the list for many parents, she shared steps she has taken to see if the district can employ a school resource officer.

The superintendent said one avenue to pay for the officer would be through property tax revenue, but would require the community’s support. She added that funding through grants would not be available for Columbia schools because of certain indicators, such as the number of violent offenses reported at the schools, needed to qualify.

While the school district continues weighing the possibility of bringing in an SRO, Segobiano told parents that the Columbia Police Department approved an increased presence at the schools. 

Donjon said that entails upping the number of safety checks at the schools, including checking that doors are locked at the buildings. Another possibility Donjon heard from other communities is a 50/50 cost share between the district and CPD to pay for an SRO.

“I’m not too sure, though. We’re looking into it,” he said.

Sean McGowan

Sean is a die-hard Cubs fan, despite the relentless peer pressure coming from the rest of the Republic-Times staff. He and his wife, Jacqui, have been married for two years. Originally from the west suburbs of Chicago, Sean and his wife moved down to Normal to attend Illinois State University and stayed central Illinois residents for the past four years. email:sean@republictimes.net