Hundreds of Lee’s Summit community members — including parents, teachers, school administrators, law enforcement officials, local government representatives, and children — gathered Wednesday for a “Community Conversation on School Safety.”
The forum, a joint initiative of the Lee’s Summit Police Department and the Lee’s Summit R-7 School District that took place at Lee’s Summit City Hall, was led by LSPD Chief Travis Forbes, R-7 Superintendent Dr. Dennis Carpenter, the district’s Director of Student Services Dr. Rexanne Hill, and the district’s Supervisor of Safety and Environmental Services Ryan Hall.
“The spark for this event was that we wanted to make the national conversation occurring around mass school shootings into a local conversation, particularly in the light of the suicide last fall at Lee’s Summit North, and the gun incident at Lee’s Summit in March,” LSPD Public Information Officer Sgt. Christopher Depue said. “Anxiety can come from a problem with no solutions. We wanted to bring the community together to discuss solutions.”
Jeff Smith and his son, George, a Lee’s Summit West sophomore, were in the audience to learn about those solutions.
“This is a big issue in our house and George is passionate about issues,” Jeff said. “I want to teach him that he can share his opinion in the public process and be part of the solution. I want him to see different forums and avenues where he can make a change.”
Forbes opened the panel discussion with a question: “How do we protect our students and provide quality education at the same time? What can we do to make it better, rather than passing blame?”
Initially, the discussion focused on safety measures and initiatives currently in place as panel members shared a number of the district’s specific programs, including training and assessment among other things.
Hall spoke about emergency training that has taken place across the district and noted that every R-7 staff member has completed Active Shooter/Intruder Response Training. Additionally, many staff and administrators have been certified in Emergency Response Training and School Crisis Casualty Care.
Panel members recognized the critical importance of the district’s relationship with law enforcement maintaining school safety. Currently, there are six student-resource officers in the district’s middle and high schools with four DARE officers in the elementary schools.
Hill said the district completed an assessment of safety protocols and procedures last year, which resulted in the revamping of existing practices and the addition of new programs. She also discussed the launch earlier this year of a district-wide Safe Schools Tip Line, which allows for anonymous reports via call, text, or email regarding concerns and issues within the district.
Additionally, several counselors and therapists have been added to the district’s staff for 2017-18 to assist students with mental health issues.
But panel members also expressed the importance of the wider community’s involvement to develop and implement solutions.
“People think there’s a one-step solution to the school safety problem,” Depue said. “There isn’t. Prevention has to be a multi-faceted approach, including parents, students, law enforcement, and the schools.”
Panel members focused on two elements they see as vital to prevention as part of such an approach — reporting issues and building relationships.
One of the district’s mottos students see every day is, “If you see something, say something.”
“We’re building a culture of trust where students will tell and report what they know, so we can prevent gun violence, suicide, or bullying,” Hall said.
Carpenter said reporting allows the district to take action when warranted and also discussed the link between relationships and a safe school culture.
“Relationships play a critical role in prevention,” said Carpenter, who is in his year year as the R-7 superintendent. “Connecting one another is key to maintaining safety. Relationship building needs to happen between the district and parents, and between students and staff, including social workers, counselors, administration, and law enforcement.”
During a question-and-answer segment, panelists answered dozens of questions from the audience on topics from mental health and suicide prevention to securing school entrances and exits, from the role of social media in school violence to metal detectors in schools.
Both Forbes and Carpenter questioned the benefits of metal detectors with Carpenter, who previously served as superintendent of Hickman Mills schools, sharing his experience from schools where such devices were in place.
“Metal detectors come at a cost,” he said. “There’s the financial cost but there’s also another cost — the cost to the school culture. We lost something with the metal detectors, and that was the quality of relationships. Metal detectors create a hardness in the environment.”
One audience member asked what the district is doing to build soft skills in the student population, such as kindness and caring.
Hill outlined a number of programs in place to develop these skills — such as kindness clubs, bringing speakers in from Lee’s Summit Cares and other community organizations to lead discussions about respect, and more.
“Acceptance, inclusion, and validation are key,” Hill said. “Listen to students and learn from them, acknowledge their feelings, and take time to talk with one another.”