TWIN FALLS — Like millions of students around the country, 15-year-old Eliana Perotto was worried after hearing about a school shooting last month in Parkland, Fla.
“I started thinking, ‘Are we safe?” Eliana, who attends Xavier Charter School, said Wednesday.
One of her classmates, 15-year-old Kendall Whitney, was hearing a lot of talk a couple of weeks ago in the hallways and in her classes about the National School Walkout March 14 to protest gun violence.
“Of course, the teachers care about us,” Kendall said.
But they’d never communicated with students about what’s being done for school security, she said, and she wanted her classmates to have that information, too. Eliana and Kendall were among the first students to approach Xavier administrators about school safety. They collaborated with school leaders to come up with an idea in lieu of a walkout — a school safety awareness assembly, held Wednesday in the Twin Falls public charter school’s cafeteria.
“This is not going to be a political assembly,” Xavier administrator Gary Moon told nearly 300 students from seventh through 12th grades and a few visiting parents.
The focus of the assembly was on steps Xavier has taken — or plans to take — to improve school security. Students had a chance to ask questions. The overarching theme was encouraging students to tell an adult if they see something suspicious, whether at school or via social media websites or if something doesn’t feel right.
“Don’t ever not report that,” Moon said. “If it turns out to be nothing, great.”
He told students their opinions are valued. “You guys are super important to the safety of our school,” he said.
Beyond the assembly, Xavier’s student body president Madison Rencher, 18, organized a “Shine Your Light Week” for this week. The purpose is to encourage positivity among the student body, she said. It includes activities such as holding encouraging signs as students arrive at school, putting sticky notes with positive messages on lockers and having each student write a kind letter to a peer.
During Xavier’s assembly Wednesday, Moon recognized a few students who brought up the idea for an assembly.
“They’re probably the ones that pushed it to the forefront more than anyone else,” he said. He later added: “They were concerned about student safety for obvious reasons.”
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After spring break, the school plans to implement a new Raptor security system. Visitors to the school — including parents and contractors — will have to show an identification card and will be run through a background check system, including the national sex offender registry.
Liz Copp, a junior high/high school language arts teacher at Xavier, told students about her experiences visiting a memorial in memory of the victims of a 1999 mass shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., where 13 people were killed. She told students it’s difficult to talk with them about this topic.
“You guys have grown up in a generation where what’s normal has shifted,” she said.
Copp said she wasn’t going to turn the assembly into a political debate. Instead, she encouraged students to love everyone around them and extend the courtesy of compassion.
Twin Falls school resource officer Morgan Waite, who is typically stationed at Magic Valley High School, told Xavier students their campus is much more secure than many others he has seen. Waite has assisted with minor incidents at Xavier, but the school doesn’t have a regular resource officer. Waite has been with the Twin Falls Police Department for five years, after moving from North Las Vegas, Nev. He told students he was looking for a smaller, family-friendly community.
He has been a school resource officer for about a year. In that role, “the biggest source of information for us is students,” he said. You hear the news of school shootings, he said, but “how many more don’t you hear about because they were stopped?”
Toward the end of the assembly, students’ questions included: Are the glass doors at the school’s front entrance bulletproof? What happens if a member of my family who’s not allowed to pick me up comes to the school? What if a scenario like the Maryland school shooting Tuesday happens at Xavier before the school day begins? What if a shooting happens at lunchtime? What if a shooter sneaks into the building during a passing period?
One teenage girl asked whether while hiding in a classroom during an active shooter incident if students should stay away from windows and doors. A shooter would know that’s where they’d be, she said.
Moon responded by saying it’s still the safest place, but some new lockdown procedures will address that topic, such as fleeing from a portion of the school building that’s far away from the shooter.
The girl followed up: If a lot of students are in a cramped space, doesn’t that make them a target?
If a shooter makes it into a classroom, Moon said, “at that point, your only option is to fight back.”