School bus in front of stop sign

During the winter months, safety and emergency preparedness is on the minds of many. For schools and their educators, these topics are ever present. 

In the Columbia Gorge, local school districts and community partners have made great strides to improve school safety, security, and emergency management and preparedness. Key drivers in this work are the Columbia Gorge Education Service District’s (CGESD) School Safety & Emergency Management (SSEM) program and School Safety & Prevention System (SSPS) programs.

The collective work began in 2019 with the SSEM program supporting schools in emergency management and preparedness. In 2021, the work grew to include SSPS efforts and the establishment of a Regional Behavioral Safety Assessment Team (R-BSAT). This regional team has members trained in behavioral safety assessment from many sectors in the community. This includes school staff, mental health providers, Department of Human Services personnel, law enforcement officers, and children’s advocacy centers personnel. The R-BSAT provides support to all schools, upon request, to assess situations where there is a concern about possible violence. The goal of assessments is to identify and intervene on any potential plans for violence and ensure people in need receive the help and support necessary to help them off the planned pathway to violence. 

Since it was established in 2021, the team has responded to multiple concerns.  In those cases, the R-BSAT assessed the situations in partnership with school staff and created management plans, which helps the school personnel connect students in need to resources.

"Historically, schools, mental health, law enforcement, DHS, and other agencies have had to navigate troublesome or concerning actions, statements, or rumors involving students, or juveniles, on their own,” explains Scott Williams, Chief Deputy of the Wasco County Sheriff’s Office. “Each entity could only work with the information they, or their team, had on hand. More than that, some agencies and community members didn't know where to go if they had concerning information to share. Since the R-BSAT team was developed and adopted in Wasco County, a more collaborative approach to these concerns is taking place. This team has been trained as a group that meets regularly, and as needed, to discuss any concerns that come up through a more holistic approach.This is an amazing resource and a critical group to support youth in our community getting the help they need and keeping our schools safe." 

Over the past three years, the SSEM program has completed threat and hazard site assessments for all buildings at Hood River County School District, North Wasco County School District, South Wasco County School District, and Saint Mary’s Academy of The Dalles. Local law enforcement and fire personnel were involved in many aspects of the site assessments. School leaders have received reports detailing the findings and are acting on identified ways to improve school safety and security. 

Kyle Rosselle, Director of Safety & Security for Hood River County School District has been an active participant in the work. He explains, “This past summer, HRCSD had the opportunity to partner with the SSEM program to evaluate and assess every site in our school district. Focusing on both the exterior and interior features of each property as well as policies and systems currently in place, the detailed reports we received are quite comprehensive. The data is being utilized by school district personnel to guide next steps as it was prepared by professionals knowledgeable in best practices. Our hope is to continue to make strides in all aspects of school district safety. We are grateful to the SSEM program for all their support!” 

As the reports may contain specific observations about the security and any vulnerabilities of the buildings, they are exempt from public disclosure under ORS 192.345 and 192.355.

Local school districts have also engaged in tabletop exercises and workshops in partnership with community safety personnel. Most recently, South Wasco County School District (SWCSD) has engaged in a workshop focused on student and family reunification in the event of an emergency which requires students to be transported off campus, such as a Level 3 wildfire evacuation. SWCSD will continue with workshops throughout the winter and early spring, building to a full-scale reunification exercise in the spring. This will allow their staff to test and refine their systems prior to an emergency. 

“We realized that our efforts to conduct lock down and other safety drills are only part of the picture during an unexpected safety event,” says Mark Endsley, Principal of South Wasco County Schools. “Whether we had a fire evacuation, chemical or fuel spill in town, a high speed chase on the Highway past school or the almost unthinkable event of a school shooting, the safety preparation during an event is only part of the picture. Our intent is to provide staff, students, and members of our community the chance to practice the complete set of steps required to safely move from a dangerous episode at school through possible evacuation to a safe site, and reunification of students with families. This complex set of steps won’t happen on its own. We need to practice to be prepared in order to have smooth and safe transitions each step of the way.” 

All school districts hope that emergencies never happen, but Hood River and Wasco County School Districts are preparing to be ready, just in case.

Photo credit: Jackson Simmer on Unsplash