School Culture Drives Student Safety

Students at desks in a row taking a test

It is no secret that St. Vrain Valleys Schools values cutting-edge technology, high-quality teachers and academic excellence within its schools. These essentials are considered ‘priority one’ when speaking to any district official or community stakeholder. Another area of equal importance is student safety and providing secure learning environments for our community’s greatest asset – students.

With the successful passage of two bond measures and strong finances, St. Vrain remains dedicated to investing in safety and security. Over a span of eight years, the school district has allocated $4.2 million to facility improvements such as secure entryways, indoor and outdoor camera systems, school resource officers (SROs) and upgrades related to increased emergency response times. In addition to building upgrades, students and staff engage in several trainings and drills throughout the year – averaging 811 drills across all schools annually and 1,890 hours of training designated for campus supervisors, SROs, school leadership and district administration.

Every camera installed and every drill performed greatly increases our ability to provide safe learning environments, but by far, the greatest asset we have in responding to critical situations is the culture created within the classrooms and hallways of our schools.

Staci Stallings has been an SRO at Silver Creek High School for the past three years of her ten-year tenure with the Longmont Police Department. She fully believes that a strong, well-defined culture contributes to school safety. “The term school safety is often associated with prevention. When I think of school safety, I think of a student’s mental health, the quality of life in school and relationships developed between students,” said Stallings. “These issues affect school safety and can be linked to documented incidents of school violence.”

Overall, St. Vra in Valley Schools has 13 dedicated SROs servicing all neighborhood schools and the 411 square miles surrounding them. While these officers ultimately serve the community by enforcing the law, they are an integral part of school culture and discipline – they must be approachable. “The key is to rema in visible – I never stand alone. There are always kids conversing in the halls or at lunch. I use that time to ask questions and get to know as many students as I can.”

When Stallings is not cruising the halls or having lunch with incoming freshmen, she can be found participating in classroom discussions, accompanying classes on leadership retreats, attending co-curricular activities or overseeing Silver Creek’s Restorative Justice (RJ) Program, a program designed to engage students on both ends of an infraction – the ‘offender’ and the ‘victim’. Stallings successfully established the RJ Program during the 2016-2017 school year, with the support of the Longmont Community Justice Partnership (LCJP). When used, RJ is a highly effective, alternative form of discipline that engages all parties involved and allows for a healthy emotional healing process. To start the process, the ‘offender’ must first take responsibility for his or her actions. Once this is acknowledged, the ‘victim’ and his or her parents or guardians must agree to participate in a group conference. This conference involves both parties, staffed facilitators and LCJP trained student peers. Collectively, the group decides action items for the ‘offender’ to complete. This could consist of a written apology, a published article on a meaningful topic or any other constructive form of contrition. Once all action items are completed, offenders are eligible for reduced punishment while victims experience a more meaningful resolution.

The RJ Program is not the only initiative impacting Silver Creek’s school culture and safety. Sources of Strength (SOS) is a national project that encourages students to develop help-seeking behaviors and promotes connections between peers and caring adults. Interventionist Whitney Mires was first exposed to SOS at a Colorado Safe Schools Conference.

“Sources of Strength is a community oriented program that concentrates on positive solutions rather than the ‘sad, shock and trauma’ approach often used in programs supporting mental health,” said Mires. “The goal is to reach all of our students with this program, not just those within select focus programs.”

Through a large grant from Boulder County Public Health, the school was able to host an initial training of 50 students and 12 staff members in the fall of 2016 with plans to host a second training this fall. During the second year of this initiative, new recruits are nominated by peer leaders from the previous year and they participate in group informational meetings, one on-one conversations and campaign development activities. Senior, Aubrey Hanrahan, feels so strongly about the SOS program, she’s made it her senior capstone project for Silver Creek’s Leadership Academy. Hanrahan is a valuable peer leader and looks forward to further integration of SOS in the school’s culture.

“It is a positive program that focuses on supporting students,” said Hanrahan. “Many of my friends currently trained in the program feel genuinely supported and realize there are ways in which they can reach out for help if they need it.” SOS has a large inventory of predesigned materials to guide student-led activities, but schools are encouraged to adjust their program based on their school’s culture and level of participation. Silver Creek’s program utilizes posters, videos, audio recordings and social media content by producing various campaigns that target specific challenges students often face – depression, anxiety and anger, to name a few. Each campaign uses images of actual Silver Creek students and focuses on how they deal with these common emotions. This increases relatability and drastically improves the school’s efforts in recruiting new students and peer leaders. Schools are encouraged to share their efforts with other schools in their community and across the nation.

Social-emotional programs such as Sources of Strength and Restorative Justice have proven successful within St. Vrain, prompting the district to develop additional strategies for continuous improvement. These include increased student participation and engagement at school, strengthening emotional support and stress management, and emphasizing healthy habits and behaviors.

During the 2015-2016 school year, St. Vrain implemented its first ever Wellness, Culture and Safety Inventory (WCSI), an online questionnaire that collects feedback from high school students. The inventory takes approximately 30 minutes to complete and focuses on student well-being and issues that impact academic performance and success.

Results from the 2016-2017 WCSI questionnaire revealed that most high school students feel very secure and safe in their school environments. They like and feel connected to their schools, have many chances to be involved and feel very strongly that graduation and having plans for the future are extremely important.

Another tool in St. Vrain is Safe2Tell, a Colorado organization serving as the statewide bystander reporting tool for concerning behaviors. Safe2Tell encourages individuals with critical information about a possible event to report it.

Susan Payne, Founder and Director of Safe2Tell believes an increase in the number of tips received each year demonstrates a change in the culture and attitudes about reporting unsafe behaviors and situations. Over the past ten years, social norms have changed. Payne says, “It is imperative that we lower the threshold of what triggers a student report or anonymous tip. Notifications of the smallest concern contribute to the safety of students and staff.”

Children are exposed to higher amounts of communication through social media and other online platforms. While it is impossible to monitor every scrap of information a student receives, it is possible to encourage reporting, build social-emotional skills and provide the tools necessary to inform authorities in a comfortable way.

“Young people perceive threats to school safety long before adults,” said Payne. “It is extremely important for students to recognize the importance of reporting suspicious activity to an adult or through the Safe2Tell hotline.” St. Vra in Valley Schools, had many reports in the 2016-2017 school year. These reports ranged from bullying to petty theft, but show that students are willing to report and build upon the life skills and resiliency programs they are engaged in.

Just as St. Vrain has experienced tremendous success in developing strong academic programming, integrated learning technologies and professional development, it has succeeded in cultivating a culture of school safety, positive outlooks and interconnectedness.

St. Vrain Valley Schools