At Cortland Elementary School, students feel safe.
Their school is small and located in a very rural setting.
They trust their teachers to look out for them and make the right decisions when it comes to emergency situations.
“I feel safe here at school because I know there are lots of trusted adults,” third-grader Violet Reecer said.
Another student said he feels safe at Cortland because it is a Four Star School and one of the best schools around.
But even though students feel safe overall, that doesn’t mean they don’t think about things that could happen while they are at school. They see and hear things teachers don’t and process information in a different way.
That’s why school social worker Wendy Nicholson and administrative leaders at Cortland and Emerson elementary schools are taking a new approach to school safety.
Instead of assuming how kids feel and what they worry about, the adults are asking, listening and making changes based on student input.
On Tuesday afternoon, the first Student Safety Council at Cortland met to discuss a range of safety-related issues and how to improve existing school safety measures and protocols. Emerson’s council met Wednesday.
Topics included active shooter response, staying safe during a tornado or fire, reacting to a bully on the playground or bus, handling a threat of violence from another student, helping a fellow student or teacher who is sick or injured, preventing the spread of COVID-19 and other potential situations.
“We are going to gauge the effectiveness of this meeting to see when and how often we should meet in the future,” Nicholson said. “But at this point, we are thinking of having the meetings twice per year, once at the beginning of the school year then again during the second semester.”
Both groups are made up of around 20 students in third through fifth grade along with Nicholson, principals Lori Lister and Julie Kelly, head of school nursing Sherry Reinhart, School Resource Officer Chadd Rogers and community safety officials, including Seymour Police Department Capt. Troy Munson and Seymour Firefighter Cory Acton.
Students are chosen to participate based on their level of involvement in the classroom and their ability to converse with adults.
Nicholson said she got the idea for starting the councils after participating in a recent school safety training session where she learned of the value of such student-led groups to help the schools evaluate their policies and procedures.
“The purpose of the Student Safety Council is to provide students with the opportunity to share their concerns and insights about school safety,” she said. “We will then use the information gathered during the meeting to revise our safety policies if needed.”
During the meetings, adults asked the students questions to facilitate the discussion and gained insight on issues and concerns they have. Students also were able to ask questions.
The atmosphere is informal so students feel comfortable participating, she added.
“We want our students to be honest and open,” Nicholson said.
Fourth-grader Jaxon Marcott said safety features like security cameras and having police officers at the schools make him feel safe.
Munson asked if students ever worry about the possibility of strangers gaining access to the school.
Fifth-grader Zane Lynch said sometimes, there are people walking down the road behind the school, but they don’t approach students.
One student said he saw people looking in the school windows one time and didn’t know what was going on.
Lister said any vendor, volunteer or other non-school employee must take certain steps before being given access to the interior of the school. Through a video/intercom system, school officials can see who the person is before letting them in and then they must sign in and are given a visitor badge to wear.
“I think as adults, we just take for granted that we know those things are there, but sometimes, you guys may not know, and that may help you feel safe,” she said.
Lister encouraged students to recall a time where maybe they didn’t feel safe or felt nervous or scared while at school.
Reecer said she was scared a couple of years ago when everyone at the school was forced to take cover for a long time because of the weather.
Another student said one time, the school had a lockdown drill, but he didn’t know it was just a drill, so he was scared.
Some students said teachers should let their classes know it’s a drill, while others said it was better if they thought it was real.
“If we don’t know if it’s real or not, we’ll probably behave like it’s the real thing,” Reecer said.
Fifth-grader Anslee Hawkins said by not knowing, students take the drill more seriously.
Both Rogers and Munson assured students they would be safe by staying behind a locked door and hiding if there really was an active shooter.
“If these doors are locked, it’s hard for somebody to get in them,” Munson said. “And I can promise you guys, if you have a real lockdown situation here, there will be more police than you’ve ever seen. We’re on the way. We’ll be here quick. If something is going on here at school, we will all be here as fast as lightning.”
Munson said there is nothing more important to police and firefighters than kids in trouble.
“There is no greater emergency that any of us would ever go to,” he said. “You guys are very, very important to us, and we would get here as soon as we could to make sure you are safe.”