Special board meeting

White Salmon Valley School Director Alan Reitz (left) and Supterintendent Jerry Lewis listen as Craig McKee, principal of Columbia High School, reads prepared text at a Sept. 24 community forum that the School District called to address events that led to a lockdown of local schools on Sept. 20. Inset below, Deputy Ben Corning.

A large crowd of parents, students, faculty and staff gathered together last Tuesday evening in the Henkle Middle School/Wallace and Priscilla Stevenson Intermediate School gym for a special meeting of the White Salmon Valley School District Board of Directors to discuss the lockdown that occurred Sept. 20.

Parents and students alike expressed concern over what they perceived as a lack of communication between them and school officials. Some also expressed their desire to change policies regarding bullying, mental health and gun violence.

Officials spoke from written statements outlining the events which unfolded Thursday evening, Sept. 19, and throughout Friday, Sept. 20.

“We all suffered a lot of fear on Friday and we as the school board decided we need a chance to hear from the administrators, to hear from law enforcement, to hear from you especially about how our emergency plan worked, what didn’t work and what we can do to make it better,” said Alan Reitz, member of the board of directors.

“We will also discuss the role of how misinformation on social media played in this instance and how we as a community can approach information sharing in the future,” Superintendent Jerry Lewis added.

“Some of the posts really fueled the flame of fear,” Lewis said.

School officials gave an overview of the events which unfolded from Sept. 19 to Sept. 20.

“Parents were not notified of a possible threat because there was no evidence to support the threat,” McKee said, citing the investigators’ report that he had not had access to any weapons.

“Out of an abundance of caution the district asked law enforcement to have a presence at the high school the next day.”

“It is our understanding that at some time in the morning of Sept. 20 someone posted inaccurate information on social media reporting that there was an active shooter at the high school. This information was completely untrue,” McKee continued.

McKee said someone reported that the student who had allegedly made threatening statements, which were not substantiated by evidence, was spotted near the school. The person who spotted the student shared the information through social media, which led to the administration placing the school on lockdown. 

He also confirmed the student is not under further investigation by law enforcement.

Some parents at the meeting took issue with the district’s communication process. The first official message from the district came through robocalls, the skyward messaging system and through social media and the district website around a half-hour after schools in the district entered lockdown. Parents had noted they heard about the rumors from their students hours before the official message came. By the time officials sent the message, parents had begun arriving to pick up their students. By 2 p.m. on Friday, over three quarters of the student population in Columbia High School had either been picked up or left campus.

One parent questioned the board. “If it’s credible enough to have law enforcement, why weren’t parents notified?”

“I would have loved to have made that choice myself,” he added.

McKee said, due to state and federal laws, any information that was transmitted through the school about information on the student around whom the rumors were focused must be permitted by the parent of the student. He said that because of this, as well as because of all the rumors which led to dead-ends, there was difficulty in transmitting a clear message in time.

“It’s a little frustrating for us too,” McKee said.

Deputy Ben Corning of the Klickitat County Sheriff’s Office spoke to how the department investigated the alleged threat. He said the School District had coordinated with the Sheriff’s Office to establish control over the situation.

“Just to be very clear, at each step, we were notified promptly by the school that there might be a problem. We investigated and there was never any information substantiated,” Corning said. 

“There wasn’t actually a threat,” he remarked.

Corning said the school buildings within the district have been the site of training by law enforcement, as well as fire and EMS services, to practice response procedures.

Corning cited misinformation disseminated through social media by students as an inciting factor for the lockdown.

“Generally what started as rumors spread worse rumors, [which] spread worse rumors,” said Corning. “Anyone who’s played the game of ‘Telephone’ understands how that goes.”

Corning said some students reported to school officials and law enforcement about confirmed information which spread through social media.

“I think they should be proud of the fact that they saw a potential problem and they told someone,” said Corning.

Lewis said administrators had undergone specialized safety training prior to the incident, and staff had performed active shooter training with the Sheriff’s Office earlier in the year. He said the district performs lockdown drills but administrators are looking at ways to update the protocol.

Lewis said each building must have an emergency plan book which is to be updated yearly. He said the district is in the process of updating their emergency procedures at the time of the meeting.

Lewis said the district had implemented a new radio system to communicate between buildings but said there were “gaps” in the system. One student told the board that their teacher had no radio and was without communication during the lockdown, which lasted around ten minutes Friday morning. The schools were not fully locked down, but entered a partial stage, in which doors were locked but class resumed throughout the course of the lockdown.

Lewis also said some parents hadn’t received Skyward alerts because the system only sends those messages to the primary contact that they list in the system.

As the result of a Sept. 26 School Board meeting in the Wallace and Priscilla Stevenson Intermediate School library, Lewis said the administration team is looking to integrate a different messaging system that the Hood River School District uses. He said it would be more effective and rapid at sending out messages through more media, like SMS text messages and email.

Lewis said the admin team planned to meet Oct. 1 to begin reviewing safety protocols. Many parents offered support and help to the admin team. One parent suggested there should be a student committee member as a way to keep students up-to-date on how procedures will change.

One parent remarked: “maybe, if there’s been a threat made against the school you notify parents when the threat’s made and you give them the context of your professional assessment, and let the parent make the decision of whether their child should go.”

The parent also suggested that there should be a standard protocol in place for a child to report a threat.

One parent, who also teaches within the district said she had concerns with how the communication affected parents who wanted to pick their children up from school after the rumor spread.

“It seems something dangerous to have so many people driving to school if there had been a bad thing happening,” she said. She said she didn’t have an answer but hoped the school would find a way to do something about that issue.

One parent expressed concerns about the effects of the panic felt by the community that Friday.

“The mental health tolls that it has on our children to go through drills, to have these sorts of situations, to not protect them and incubate them and protect their innocence and kind of shield them as calm, protected informed adults is really important.”

She added that she wanted to hear about the disciplinary process the school goes to minimize bullying. Brian Morris, vice principal of Columbia High School, spoke to zero tolerance policies that were rescinded in Washington state, making it tougher for school officials to expel a student.

“We want to be open,” Lewis said. “We have to work together.”

Chris Cazares, a Columbia High School alum and employee at the White Salmon Valley School District, translated for the Spanish speakers in the crowd. He also expressed his own concerns in front of the board.

“Continue to speak up,” said Cazares, directing the message to the students.

Eight students spoke at last Thursday night’s district board meeting, some wearing shirts that said “stand up for safety.” A senior at Columbia High spoke during the audience comments section of the meeting.

“I’ve never felt unsafe at school. In fact, I usually feel pretty safe in our small town thinking something like this would never happen,” the student said.

“I don’t understand why you couldn’t have just told our parents what was going on. It’s not that hard. On snow days you cancel school at 6 a.m. and this seems a little more serious than some school,” the student said.

She also offered to help implement changes within safety procedures.

“It’s really regrettable that you guys had to go through that … We 100 percent agree that the communication needs to be better,” said Laurie Stanton, who sits on the Board of Directors.

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