By Katy Savage
In the wake of an alleged threat at Woodstock Elementary School in which parents felt left in the dark, the School Board is tightening its policy around communication with parents.
The School Board policy committee met Feb. 13 and changed the language of its School Crisis Prevention and Response Policy to include a sentence that says, “All incidents involving use of deadly weapons, whether a threat or an actual act, must be communicated to community members as soon as it is safe to do so.”
The policy, last updated in 2016, also directs the superintendent to create a school crisis team in each school and a district wide school public safety team in consultation with law enforcement and other agencies.
The policy committee passed the updated wording unanimously on Feb. 13. The policy will go to the full board for approval.
“It’s hard to specify one category of a potential crisis to the exclusion of others,” said board member Carin Park. “We are in a culture, a situation right now in our society where gun violence specifically is something that people are concerned about and for good reason.”
The policy was updated after a fourth grade student allegedly brought a 9 mm bullet to school on Jan. 24 and threatened
to use a gun on others, according to former fourth grade teacher Stephanie Petrarca, who resigned because of the incident.
Petrarca detailed what she knew in her Jan. 29 resignation letter. She said the issue started Jan. 24, when a student in her class told a school counselor he had a bullet. Later that day, the male student informed students on the bus he had a hit list. Petrarca, who was not on the bus, said she heard about the threats from another student.
Nearly 200 people attended a school Board meeting on Feb 6, explaining concerns with heightened violence in school and lack of transparency and communication with parents.
The incident was never detailed to parents or discussed.
Superintendent Sherry Sousa sent a note to the entire school district on Jan. 30. She did not mention a threat. She said the district was going through a “deeply challenging time.”
“I want to assure you that violence has no home in our school district community,” Sousa wrote.
Both Mills and Sousa later told the Mountain Times they had no concerns about violence in school.
Parents, who have heard rumors of the incident, are demanding more from the administration and School Board.
The policy committee spent about an hour discussing the School Crisis Prevention and Response Policy and what rises to the level of a threat in which parents would need to be informed.
Board members agreed a student punching another or accidentally bringing a pocket knife to school didn’t necessitate informing the greater school community.
“We’ve got to keep in mind these are children,” School Board member Sam DiNatale said. “You don’t want these messages going out to the entire community and this poor kid who forgot not to bring his pocket knife to school gets ostracized. We don’t want to be creating that issue, either.”
The School Board discussed adding language to the policy that parents needed to be informed of the incident the same day it happened.
Sousa pushed back.
“Sometimes whether it’s a credible threat or not cannot be determined,” she said, explaining law enforcement officers need to be involved. “If it’s the same day, that’s a little tricky.”
School Board member Matt Stout said the credibility of the threat didn’t matter. “If you have a child that’s telling other kids in school that they’re bringing a gun I don’t want to wait for law enforcement to search the kid’s house before we acknowledge that we have a real serious problem,” Stout said.
Stout said the issues have been handled well by the district in the past, mentioning a teenager who threatened to bring a gun to a Woodstock Union High School dance. Parents were notified and students could attend the dance at their discretion.
“We didn’t wait for police to search that kid’s house to determine whether it was credible,” Stout said.
The board did not discuss the level of detail the notification to parents should entail.
The School Board is scheduled to meet again on Feb. 27 at 6:30 p.m. at the Woodstock Union High School – Middle School Teagle Library with public comment.
In the meantime, the School Board is taking action. A new administrative position might be added to Woodstock Elementary School to help with student behavioral issues. The School Board will review the Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports (PBIS) system and parents and students are asked to take a survey to be reviewed by the School Board.
A new page will also be added to the district’s website dedicated to school safety.