School board hears concerns over student safety, understaffing
Following the May 1 lockdown at Nome-Beltz Middle/High School, parents voiced concerns about the district’s response to the incident. When the Board of Education met last week, several parents gave public testimony not only about fears for student safety, but also about how teacher burnout and high rates of turnover may impact kids’ wellbeing and leave campuses vulnerable.
The campus went into lockdown just before noon on Monday, May 1, as police responded to a potential threat referencing a school shooter posted on social media. Nome police arrested the student who made the post. No weapon was found. More than an hour after the lockdown was initiated, NPD and the district sent out their own press releases to media and posted those notices to Facebook.
“I’m glad that Beltz took the situation the other day really seriously since school violence in America is many parents’ worst nightmare, including mine,” said Rachel Ventress. “The most disturbing thing to me about the crisis the other day is that, as a teacher at ACSA [Anvil City Science Academy], a campus just feet away from the incident, I had no idea that there was a lockdown happening until after the fact because ACSA staff were not notified until afterward. So, realizing that made me really terrified to trust my children with the district, because it appears that there’s no district-wide protocol for notifying campuses what to do if there’s a lockdown or shelter-in-place when one campus is threatened.”
Another parent later commented that he didn’t appreciate having to sort through the rumors swirling around town about what was happening at the school. “Where my issue came in was the lack of transparency that came from school,” he told the board. “I didn’t leave my children in the care of the Nome Police Department. And I shouldn’t have to get the truth of what happened at the school from the Nome Police Department.”
Ventress said district leadership told her that the best defense against school shootings is ensuring that every student has at least one trusted adult in the building, as well as access to counselors. But she added that she was worried Nome Public Schools was not set up to provide that defense, linking the issue to understaffing.
“Our district does not pay enough to attract or retain a robust staff, so our schools are chronically understaffed,” Ventress said. “Students don’t have access to counselors because counselors are being called into sub or perform other duties. Counselors become subs and then teachers have to be mental health professionals and who steps in to do the teaching? Bullying is reported as a huge issue in our schools, perhaps because there’s not enough supervision and personnel for consistent social emotional learning curriculum, or to supervise common areas.”
She expressed worry for her son who was headed into fourth grade at Nome Elementary School, which currently only has one fourth grade teacher secured for next year.
“It’s impossible for kids to feel safe at school when teachers are overwhelmed with a classroom that size as we’ve seen in past years,” Ventress said.
Jason Brown, current president of the Nome Education Association, expanded on the district’s problems with hiring and retaining teachers in his public comment. “We have six full time certified positions here at NES that are not filled at this time, and that’s out of 24 total positions,” Brown said. “So, 25 percent of our teaching staff is not filled, and we’re in mid-May.”
Superintendent Jamie Burgess said in her report to the board that her administration was planning a full-day violent intruder training for all staff and was working with local first responder agencies to improve building safety. The administration is also updating a district-wide crisis response plan and implementing a software platform that would allow all staff and first responders access to this plan, she said.
“Our goal is to have consistent district-wide procedures and plans in place by the early part of next school year, and to ensure all staff are trained,” Burgess wrote in her report.
Burgess reiterated that plans are underway to install additional security measures for the entrances for Nome-Beltz and NES. By the next school year, both should have a buzzer system with cameras.
More public comments addressed the lockdown incident later in the meeting. Debbie Ellis, a special education aide at ACSA, said that she was part of the first generation of students subjected to lockdown drills.
“Ultimately, a lot of the issues come back down to our mental health crisis that is going on,” Ellis said, expressing worry that staff was too strained to tackle these issues among students. “I understand that we are short staffed in all areas,” Ellis said. “New teacher burnout is within three to five years. I’m not even a teacher, and I’m not burnt out, but I’m pretty close to it.”
She also said that counselors need to be able to do their jobs without being pulled into other roles.
Natasha Gamache, a parent of six, said that she hoped the district would address not only bullying but also the trauma that many students have suffered. “I think it’s really important to address bullying, and it is important to address trauma because I think trauma in the home is what leads students to bullying at school,” Gamache said.
She said that school staff in Nome didn’t intervene when she was a child and reported that she was being severely physically abused. She expressed worry that the same could happen today and urged the district to train all staff on trauma-informed caregiving skills. She also tied the issue to staff pay. Gamache added that she loved her job as a special education paraprofessional, but she left the position because the wage she making was not enough.
“You can’t fully support your student body if you’re short staffed because you are underpaying your staff,” Gamache said. “We need to have enough people here to adequately work with the children that we have. And we need to adequately pay a wage commensurate with what they are doing and the cost of living here.”