Sunnyside School District Town Hall Highlights Need for School Safety

This story originally aired as part of The Buzz

As schools prepare to reopen, the gorilla in the room has been security preparations in the wake of school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, and elsewhere.

The Sunnyside School District has made this a top priority, auditing its processes and physical facilities to make any type of active shooter event at any of its schools as difficult as possible.

But, as important as it is to focus on tangible things like fences, gates, cameras and locks, Sunnyside relies on its relationships and transparent communication within its community as its most preventative measure. efficient.

The killings in Uvalde, Texas have sparked widespread fear and concern among parents and students across the country and have school officials on heightened alert. At Sunnyside Schools in Tucson, new district superintendent Jose Gastelum convened a town hall over the summer recess to foster open discussion with all members of his community.

“It’s important to us that you’re here to join us in this effort. We know this is a community effort and a shared responsibility…we really want to instill a sense of comfort, and the way we do it is to be transparent.” Gastelum started the meeting.

He said clarity in the Sunnyside community would help ensure everyone is alert to any possible warning signs.

“Too many times we have heard when these tragic events have been heard that there are red flags everywhere – in social media, in behavior, in certain actions, and so we want to make sure these things are avoided” , said Gastelum. “We all have to own this. It’s a shared responsibility and something most people don’t like to hear is that we need to eliminate human error. And that’s going to take training and communication. It’s going to take conversations. Communication is extremely important between our school district, our community and the agencies we work with,” Gastelum said.

Sunnyside Director of Security Ryan Powell continued this theme. He said Sunnyside’s physical defenses are quite strong. All schools have wrought iron fences, fortified halls and 650 surveillance cameras directly linked to law enforcement. He said the district has good protocols and doesn’t need new technology, but communication, training and staff awareness are key.

“It’s complacency that’s going to bite us,” he said. good boy, he has good parents, instead of going through the system every time. So I think that’s one of our weaknesses. We haven’t been thorough with every assessment…we see something, we say something,” Powell said.

Trust is the key to this kind of transparency – If you don’t trust the system, if you don’t trust your leaders, you won’t talk. One of the most intransigent trust issues across the country relates to law enforcement in schools. Many parents worry that they are just there to round up the would-be troublemakers and stop them. Sunnyside has three TPD officers in the district and one Safety Resource Officer – or SRO from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department

TPD Captain Mickey Peterson says the department is not in charge of arresting students. He says they have a strong desire to build trust in the Sunnyside District. He says that to do this, they strive to hire locally, – using agents who live in the district and – and in many cases – are Sunnyside graduates.

He says having that sense of community — what he calls a sense of belonging — is key to building trust. He says it’s about building relationships – and he says they’ve built strong relationships at Sunnyside. He gave an example of how it can work on the ground.

“I want to share a case where we had a 13-year-old student from Sunnyside barricaded and armed in an apartment,” he said. “It’s a very dangerous situation. It could have gone in a lot of wrong directions. When we got there, we asked where he was going to school. And they said he was a student from Sunnyside. We called one of the officers that Sunnyside uses and she knew the student, had spoken to him, knew what he was responding to, knew how to communicate to him, and by putting this officer in front and pushing the other officers away she was able Convinced him to put the gun down and just came out and hugged her and we got him to the professionals who could really help him…and that connection we had made with Sunnyside made that possible,” explained Peterson.

But for that kind of success, community stakeholders – the school district, law enforcement, parents, and students need to be able to recognize when something is wrong and when they need to raise a red flag. .

School counselors, county departments and nonprofit organizations work to educate the community on what to look for and how to respond. It’s a lot of work and there’s a long way to go, but there’s clear recognition of how important it is to reach and move forward – with groups like Aware and Liberty Partnership Kino Neighborhoods Coalition – LPKNC – playing a leading role in providing both mental health services and education.

LPKNC CEO Jamal Givens says Sunnyside’s tight-knit community is doing better than most, and relationships with law enforcement and mental health providers have grown significantly over the past 5 years. but he says negative attitudes about mental health need to be addressed more effectively. .

“We have to do this as a community, and that means we have to de-stigmatize, within our community and with predominantly Hispanic, Latino, black people of color,” he said, “Native Americans that we need to stop looking like it’s negative – that people are loco they’re crazy they can’t get help we need to talk about it so we don’t get to cases where people end up pulling the trigger “, said Givens.

All City Hall stakeholders agreed that they were not in search of a destination, but that success would be an ongoing process, based on an intentional and flexible commitment to learning, communication and transparency. in the future.

Daniel E. Murphy