By JESSE BURKHARDT
Sparked by a frightening incident in Hood River County recently, representatives of the Bingen-White Salmon Police Department wanted to make sure local kids knew what to do in the event they were facing similar danger.
On Friday, Feb. 25, Tony Domish, the city's interim public safety director/law enforcement consultant, spent the entire day at Whitson Elementary School, visiting each classroom. Accompanying Domish were Police Officer Tony Warren; Bingen Mayor Betty Barnes; Judi Culp, police clerk; and "McGruff," the iconic crime-fighting dog.
The visit comes in the wake of an attempted abduction of a young girl in the Odell, Ore., area on Feb. 6. In that incident, a man tried to lure a 7-year-old girl who was playing outside her residence into his truck. When she refused, he physically tried to grab her.
"It's scary," Domish said. "The kid fought and screamed and her mom was nearby, and she got away. That triggered this visit. We wanted to get into the schools immediately and make sure our kids are aware of what to do in situations like this. They did, and it was great."
Whitson Principal Vicki Prendergast said she appreciated that the Police Department took the initiative to contact the school district regarding the attempted abduction in a neighboring jurisdiction.
"It was a nice surprise to have that call from the police," Prendergast said. "It has been a long time since we've had that communication with the Police Department,t. And it's the first time the mayor from Bingen has been at the school. I think it's really important that kids feel comfortable around police officers so they feel comfortable about asking for help."
Domish said the main purpose of the visit to the school was safety for the children. Topics included "stranger danger," dialing 9-1-1, and safety in general.
According to Domish, there have been no similar incidents in the Bingen-White Salmon area, but it is critical to always remain alert for the possibility.
"Since that incident in Odell, we've sent extra patrols around the school," Domish pointed out.
Domish said McGruff, played by White Salmon City Council member Bob Landgren, was a huge hit.
"The kids wanted to hug him and high five him," Domish said. "We couldn't get out of the classrooms."
"They were very excited seeing McGruff," Prendergast agreed. "And the officers did a great job of taking questions from the kids. That helps develop great relationships between kids and the police. Going to the classrooms was a more personal interaction with the kids, rather than at a large assembly."
Domish added that Landgren relished the role of McGruff.
"We couldn't get him out of the costume," Domish joked.
The safety team talked with the kids and passed out stickers and bookmarks informing the youngsters when to call 9-1-1.
Domish said he was "very impressed" with the knowledge of the Whitson students.
"The kids knew all this information already, and we just reiterated it. All the kids know about stranger danger. They have been well-versed on this topic," Domish explained. "It's nice to know that even the kindergarteners knew what to call when you need help -- 9-1-1."
Prendergast said the elementary school students asked really good questions.
"Kids had a lot of information on this already, and it really helped to reinforce what they already knew," she explained. "With the abduction attempt in Hood River, we're really pleased the Police Department called and wanted to do something with the school. It's nice to have that collaborative support."
Domish added that the Police Department plans to visit the school again in October, to discuss with youngsters how to stay safe at Halloween.
No arrest has yet been made in the attempted abduction of the Odell girl. Police are looking for a white male, between 20-30 years old and approximately six feet tall. He was driving a small passenger car described as light in color with a blue racing stripe on the hood.
The police tip line for information regarding this case is: (541) 387-7077.