VWSD prepared for threats

Published 8:41 pm Saturday, February 8, 2014

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Whether it’s the conventional threat of an intruder on campus, or an airplane crashing into a building, Vicksburg Warren School District officials have a plan to ensure the safety of students and faculty.

In recent years, district officials have sought to put in place plans for any possible threats to the safety of those students and faculty members, such as a bomb threat or a nuclear disaster.

“We have five resource officers and all are trained to be alert of any threats,” said district safety coordinator Dwayne Sims, who oversees the school resource officers, or SROs.

Sims noted that, per Mississippi Department of Education regulations, all five officers must attend forty hours of training each year and are continually updated with emerging trends and threats to school safety.

Following a slew of school shootings, such as the Newtown, Conn. incident at Sandy Hook Elementary School in which 20 students and six adult staff-members were killed, schools nationwide began to assess how they respond to serious threats.

Sims said one of the best ways they have been able to address these threats is by maintaining a strong working relationship with the Vicksburg Police Department and Warren County Sheriff’s Department.

“We currently have a memorandum of understanding with the sheriff’s department to partner with them for training,” he said.

The district allows the Warren County Sheriff’s Department to conduct drills at the old Culkin High School that simulate a crisis at one of the VWSD’s 15 schools.

Sims said teachers, local law enforcement and SROs continually as a dangerous intruder to campus.

In the instance of a shooter or deadly threat, schools will go into a hard lockdown, in which outer and inner doors are locked and teachers stop teaching. For something where an unauthorized individual is on campus but is not perceived as an immediate physical threat, schools can go into a “soft lockdown,” in which doors are locked but instruction continues.

Sherman Avenue Principal Ray Hume said a recent incident when parents were picking up children at Warren Central Intermediate — which shares a building with Sherman — demonstrated the success of the district’s procedures.

“We had a parent who was not authorized to pick up that child at WCI that went down the hallway,” he said. “Immediately as soon as that happened, we were locked down.”

“We got great feedback from parents about our response,” he added.

Bovina Elementary principal Micki Ginn said each school drills for different emergency situations so students are prepared for any unique challenges presented at the school.

“We do drills on a regular basis, just making sure the kids are prepared on the front end,” she said.

Fostering cooperation with local law enforcement has also given teachers and staff an added sense of security, Ginn said.

“Generally when they’re on patrol, they stop in and visit,” she said.

For Sims though, the key to heading off problems in the 8,500-student district is listening to the students and the community.

“We’re very proactive,” he said. “Anytime we catch any rumors, we investigate it on the front end.”

On Oct. 21, 2013, most schools in the district were evacuated following a bomb threat called in shortly after school began. In April 2013, Warren Central High School was evacuated after a bomb threat was called in.

In 2006, a 12-year-old girl and 14-year-old boy were arrested for phoning in threats to five schools in the VWSD.

No bombs were found in any of the incidents, but in each case, evacuations procedures were in place and no injuries were reported.

In the coming months, a partnership between the Vicksburg Warren School District and West Central Mississippi Crimestoppers is expected to begin later this month.

Currently, tipsters can call the hotline and anonymously report information about crimes in Vicksburg and Warren County. The service, Sims said, will be expanded to include the school district soon.

“If you see something, say something,” he said.

Even in the case of a plane hitting a school building, nuclear fallout or a building collapse teachers and other staff have emergency procedures laid out. Each classroom and office has an emergency response guide that has directives for how to react to those incidents as well as the conventional threats.

However, one of the most prevalent threats to students’ safety often stems from problems between two students or groups of students that spill into the school, such as in the spring of 2013 when Vicksburg High School had multiple group fights.

On March 6, nine students were suspended for a group fight. County Court Judge Johnny Price — who has jurisdiction over Warren County Youth Court — announced that he had sentenced five Vicksburg High students to the maximum time in detention and ordered four more to drop out of school.

The court action came in the wake of the group fight and the shooting death of 17-year-old freshman, Ke’Marvin Stamps, on Gibson Road March 15.

Sims pointed to a standing court order issued by Price which forces SROs to take any student caught with weapons or drugs, or who makes a bomb threat or is involved in a group fight, to the Warren County Youth Detention Center.

At the beginning of the 2013-14 school year, Price spoke first to the district’s administrators and then to all secondary students, bluntly telling them that they will appear in youth court if they commit one of those acts.

When asked if Prices’ lectures had an effect on the students, Sims was emphatic.

“Oh, absolutely,” he said.

Michael Winters, an administrative assistant to the superintendent, said their is clear evidence that Price’s order, along with steps taken within the district, has had one glaring effect.

“We have not had a single disciplinary review committee for group fights this year,” Winters said. “That speaks volumes about the results when you have all the agencies coming together to support the district.”

However, addressing student-safety issues is not just for the courts and law enforcement, but is also a social problem that often stems from issues within a students’ home.

Tracy Young is the early intervention coordinator with the district and oversees Project SYNC, which stands for school and youth in a network community.

Now in year five, Project SYNC was funded by a federal grant that focuses on violence prevention, teen pregnancy prevention, conflict resolution, alcohol and drug prevention and gang resistance. The program connects community support with the school district to address problems both in and out of the schools.

The grant was initially a four-year program, but VWSD earned another year for implementing the program effectively.

With Project SYNC, behavioral specialists, coaches, counselors and outside speakers have been recruited to teach and interact with students.

One of the most widely featured developments from Project SYNC has been the Positive Behavior Interventions and Support, or PBIS, program. The program rewards students for following rules and demonstrating strong character. Earlier this year, Beechwood Elementary School was named a model site for the program for the second consecutive year.

Along with in-house programs, Young said Project SYNC has allowed the district to partner with social programs in the community.

“With Project SYNC, we’ve been able to provide social support by partnering with Vicksburg Family Development, the CAP Center and Warren Yazoo Mental Health Services, which provides two therapists for the district,” she said.

She said VPD community resource officer Angela Turner has provided mentoring particularly for female students

“She is an invaluable asset,” Young said.

Young said another successful aspect of Project SYNC has been the introduction of peer-remediation programs in which students help others resolve conflicts without involving administrators or adults.

“According to our data, it is very well received by the students,” Young said.

Other benefits of Project SYNC include the addition of a coordinator who works with students in the detention center to provide a transition back into the schools.

The grant did fund conventional means of preventing violence and other problems, such as the installation of surveillance cameras in all schools and on more than 70 buses, as well as metal detectors and handheld detectors for Grove Street School — the district’s alternative school.

The grant also provided funding for two SROs and handheld radios for employees in every district building.

Grove Street Principal Lee Dixon said the district’s partnerships with social and health services, along with conventional security devices has helped make the school a safe place.

“We have a tremendous amount of support, from the school social worker to the LEAD teacher to behavior specialists,” he said “When kids have a large number of discipline referrals, we can pair them with a mentor.”

District Assistant Superintendent Paula Johnson said she is pleased to see multiple agencies and staff members working together to keep the district safe.

“I feel strongly that we’ve all spoken with one voice to say we will do everything we can to ensure the safety of our faculty and students,” Johnson said.