Woodburn School District and Woodburn Police Department listen to concerns, will plan strategies for moving forward

LINDSAY KEEFER - About 150 parents attended the March 19 public forum at Woodburn High School concerning how the district and police handled a recent social media threat and what they can do better moving forward..About 150 parents turned out for a public forum Monday, March 19 at Woodburn High School to address safety issues just weeks after a social media threat and the district's response to it left many parents upset.

Around midnight Feb. 23, just over a week after 17 people were killed in a school shooting in Florida, a social media threat against Woodburn and Gervais school districts was reported to Woodburn police. Determining it to be a hoax, they alerted school officials around 6:30 a.m. School remained in session and parents were notified about the incident via autodialer, the district website, social media and letters home. The alleged perpetrator of the threat, a 17-year-old Woodburn student who lives in Gervais, was arrested around 2 p.m. that day.

Despite assurances that students and staff were safe, Woodburn saw at least 50 percent of its students go home early as a safety precaution, Superintendent Chuck Ransom said. That percentage was closer to 70 percent at the high school level, he added.

As a result, the district proposed the March 19 meeting as a way to collaborate on solutions to improve communication when these types of incidents come up.

While both Ransom and Woodburn Police Chief Jim Ferraris addressed the crowd at the beginning of the meeting, the rest of the time was dedicated to parents, students and community members, who could address Ransom, Ferraris and present school board members with their concerns, questions and frustrations. LINDSAY KEEFER - A parent sharess her concerns about how the Woodburn School District handled a recent social media threat at a March 19 public forum.

Many showed strong emotion as they recounted the events of the day of the threat, including one parent and district employee who said staff members were crying about having to stay at school.

"Why was school not canceled? A threat is a threat," she said between tears.

Though the incident was a hoax, another community member said there is still trauma from the situation.

"Now that nothing happened, what are we going to do to help our students emotionally and mentally?" she asked, mentioning how chaotic and confusing the incident was for kids, especially younger ones like her 6-year-old nephew. "We need to start with the kids first to make them feel safe."

Many concerns brought up at the meeting were regarding school district communication. One parent said that the automated phone call that was sent out gave vague information.

"After the robocall, my husband and I made the determination that I needed to pick up my child," she said. "But after (reading an article that had more information) I probably would have made the determination to leave my child at school. The robocall was so short, it left more questions than answers, so I just felt like I had to take action."

Other communication issues brought up included not keeping students or staff informed.

"I didn't hear about (the social media threat) from the school, I heard about it via social media," high school student Jessica Perez said. "I think it should have been information that was shared (with students and staff)."

"It really is upsetting to me that I talk to some elementary school teachers and they had no idea what was going on," another parent claimed. "They didn't know how to comfort kids left at school."

Ransom said after the meeting that the hope is to improve the district's communication, and the first step has already been made: The board has approved creating a communications and community outreach coordinator position.

"A vivid example of why we need additional support to push out those messages is that we're understaffed," Ransom said. "The board acted on this position a year ago and delayed because of budget uncertainty at the time."

Parents also had questions regarding what safety measures are being taken by the district in general, like how often there are lockdown drills and whether the bond projects include security upgrades.

"My concern is that it's very easy to walk into a school," one father said. "The security at most of these schools is very lax. As a parent, if I know they have good security and they're on lockdown, then I'd feel OK."

Ransom said after the meeting that security upgrades are indeed part of the bond projects. Starting with Success High School, which is currently being constructed, all school entrances will be remodeled to increase security and make it harder to enter. Additionally, many sites are building larger annex buildings to replace the individual portables, leaving classrooms less vulnerable.

As far as lockdown drills, senior Juan Arriaga, who had organized the March 14 student walkout at Woodburn High School, said he thought more lockdown drills could be helpful, since a school shooting seems more common than a fire, and there are regularly scheduled fire drills. But he was wary about the district adding too many security features

"This is Woodburn High School, this isn't MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility," he said. "There's a line we cannot cross. We don't need more security; what I think we need is a bigger campaign on bullying."

One parent said he thought the format of the forum wasn't helpful.

"It's frustrating because nothing is getting done," he said. "It's all good to bring everyone together, but we need solutions."

Ransom said after the meeting that in order to reach solutions, the district needed a forum where a diversity of voices could be heard.

"We needed the board and the Woodburn Police Department and district leaders and parents and staff and students all to sit in one room to hear all the same issues and concerns voiced at the same time," Ransom said. "What we're trying to do is gather information from our constituents about what they feel is important to consider as we think about safe schools in 2018 and beyond."

Based on the March 19 forum, district officials plan to present different options to the board in the near future, then the board will likely reach out for more ideas from the public as to how to move forward with one or more of those options.

Ransom noted that while this was a district event, the Woodburn Police Department will be heavily involved in moving forward. And while the focus of the evening was solutions for Woodburn School District, Rep. Teresa Alonso Leon (D-Woodburn) was also in attendance to gather information that she could potentially take back to the Capitol.

"It was important to me to attend the student safety forum ... because I felt that it was a great opportunity for the community to come together to work toward actionable solutions to keep our kids safe," she said in a statement. "I was so pleased to see how many parents, students and concerned community members came to offer their perspective and really put in the work to make our community safer."

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