A month after Parkland, communication and community are seen as keys to student safety in Ridgefield
RIDGEFIELD — On the one month anniversary of the school shooting that claimed 17 lives in Parkland, Florida, dozens showed up for a Safety Night Open House at the Ridgefield High School commons.
Kimber Webb, a mom with two kids at Union Ridge Elementary, was one of the key drivers behind the event.
“I’ve actually been thinking about safety for quite a while, unfortunately, with a lot of the stuff that’s been going on really for years,” says Webb, “But, with Parkland, I sent an email out to Nathan (McCann, Ridgefield Schools superintendent) and said I think we have an opportunity here and we really need to connect with the community and let them know what all the district is doing, and also find out what the community needs from the district.”
Ridgefield School District is one of only a few in the area that has a contracted security guard, rather than contracting with local police. McCann says they’ll be adding a second armed security guard next school year.
“Safety and security is the top priority of any school system,” McCann told the crowd. “Nothing else works if you don’t have that. Learning can’t be optimized if people don’t feel safe.”
The recently approved building bond for Ridgefield will include safety upgrades at the district’s elementary schools, and the new building that will house View Ridge and Sunset Ridge is also being built with safety in mind. But the people we talked with didn’t mention the physical safety improvements or added armed security as their keys to keeping kids safe in Ridgefield schools.
“It’s not just about gun control. It’s not just about putting up fences and security cameras,” says Webb. “It’s about parents being involved. It’s about teachers having conversations with their kids and with the parents. It’s about everybody working together.”
Kelly MacDonald is the new principal at Union Ridge, and she says they have put a lot of focus on communication between students and staff, and between the students themselves.
“We’re building strong relationships with our kids so they do feel safe to come forward and share concerns,” MacDonald says, “and then acknowledging that they need to advocate for themselves and to report. There’s no such thing as ‘tattling’, there is only ‘reporting’, which is healthy.”
The schools have implemented a system they call ROCKS, which stands for Respect, Ownership, Community, Kindness, and Safety.
“We have an acknowledgement system at Union Ridge for ROCKS tickets,” says Teresa Vance, a behavior intervention specialist for the district. “When you see students demonstrating positive behaviors, to acknowledge that we appreciate that you’re helping keep our schools safe, and having positive behavior.”
Noah Swenson, an 11-year-old 5th Grader at Union Ridge, says he notices kids working harder to be inclusive and aware of what’s happening around them.
“I do feel like that it’s becoming better,” he says, “because a lot of the times our class sees people at lunch that are just sitting by themselves and so, classmates and I, we go sit next to them and include them in conversations and our recess.”
Noah says the shooting in Parkland, FL was talked about with his family, but is an especially frequent topic of conversation in the classroom.
“Because there’s kids in our classroom, they have to be safe for them to feel right,” he says. “So they’re like, ‘man, I don’t feel safe with that happening so much.'”
Webb agrees, saying Parkland was just the most recent example in a trend that’s left her feeling increasingly nervous.
“It’s super scary, and it does weigh on you,” she says. “I think all you can do is your best, but I think that it’s really important, and the reason why I wanted to do this, is because I think it takes more than just one parent. It takes more than just one teacher. Everyone has an impact, but we all also need to work together.”
Ridgefield police were also on hand, and focused on gun safety at home. They were handing out free trigger locks for anyone who didn’t already have one.
“In this day and age when you’re required to have a fence around your swimming pool, why can’t we ask if you have a firearm and if it’s secured?” says police chief John Brooks. “A lot of times kids, if they don’t know about firearms, they’re very curious about them, and they’re more wanting to handle them and play with them.”
While Ridgefield police don’t currently have a school resource officer in the district, Brooks says he’s hopeful that will change in the future. In the meantime he says they have a close relationship with the district, and work hard to get ahead of any threats or concerning behavior.
“We have had information that is concerning come to our attention,” Brooks adds, “and we immediately start looking into it and have conversations with actual students, with parents, with school officials. So as soon as we find out about something, we’re on it, because we take a very proactive approach.”
At the Safety Night Open House a lot of attention was paid to bullying, and efforts to stop it from happening.
“When I work with students, they tell me the most important thing around bullying that helps is acknowledgement that that’s not OK. I’m sorry that’s happening, and we are here for you,” says Teresa Vance. “So we’re teaching those skills to make our schools safer, but also to give students the tools so they know what to do if that does come up.”
Swenson says he doesn’t see a lot of bullying in his school, but when it does happen he feels like teachers and other students have done a good job of supporting the victims and making sure to report the incident.
“When someone bullies someone,” the 5th grader says. “I just think of them as having a smaller personality. And so it doesn’t affect me as much when I think of them as smaller.”
Chief Brooks says in the wake of Parkland, and the signals that were apparently missed, he has had conversations with his officers about making sure they’re paying attention to the details and not discounting any possible threat.
“If you pay attention to the small things,” Brooks says, “then it nips it in the bud before it becomes something big. In a smaller community we can afford to give good service, and take care of those sorts of things right away, and really give a lot of attention to it. Where cities are bigger, and police are spread a little thinner with a big call load, then sometimes it’s a little more difficult to get on those things right away.”
As kids across the country were walking out of class on Wednesday to demand gun reform, Kimber Webb was just hoping to start a conversation … about having a conversation.
“I do it too. I’m on my phone, or on the computer, and that screen takes away your time, and our kids need to be face-to-face. We need to have these types of conversations,” Webb says. “That’s why this format is so positive, because people can actually have a discussion. We’re talking about things that matter to us, and how we can get involved.”
“It’s easy to kind of step out of our kids’ lives,” she concluded, “and I don’t want that to happen with mine. I want them to know that I am integral to their life.”