Verona Area School District to implement new safety protocol after fights

VERONA, Wis. (WMTV) -- Officials with the Verona Police Department say they’re recommending criminal charges of disorderly conduct and battery for four Verona High School students. In addition, five other students have been, or will be receiving, municipal citations after a fight last week.

NBC15 News was the first to report that 18 students were suspended from the school, after a series of fights broke out last Thursday.

The Verona Area School District will holds its regularly scheduled board meeting on Monday at 8 p.m.

This comes after the district released a more rigid security plan, outlining plans to include more security protocol.

“Probably the biggest thing that's going to look different is that next year we've created three positions that are going to be filled at our high school as security campus support assistance,” Jason Olson, Director of Human Resources and Safety at Verona Area School District, tells NBC15 News.

Starting in fall 2019, three trained security guards will monitor the high school, and a 24-7 anonymous tip line will be up and running to prevent future problems. Staff will also monitor the hallways during passing time.

Administrators are also working to improve communication, saying they didn’t put out updates as soon as they could have after the fight.

"We certainly got information out to people, but it wasn't as timely as we'd like to have had that done,” Olson says. “And primarily that was due to the individuals tasked at the building level with providing that communication were involved in supporting the school."

The District now has a more rigid guideline of communication rules, to get out new and accurate information, as soon as possible.

Administrators are also putting an emphasis on student/teacher relationships, so in the event of an emergency, students feel safe coming to a teacher.

"We truly believe that we have safe schools here in the Verona Area School District, and we want all of our parents and staff and students to come, to be welcome and to feel welcomed,” Olson says.

All this was outlined in a letter sent to district parents by Verona Area School District Superintendent Dean Gorrell.

The fights, which Gorrell said stemmed from interrelated personal disputes, caused distress to students who witnessed the fights, and significantly disrupted the school day. The letter said the emotional impact of the day was made worse by the "lack of timely communication" about the events.

Gorrell said May 9 was the first time the district implemented the highest level of response outlined in the district's incident response policies created in December 2018.

"We fell far short of hitting the mark," Gorrell wrote. "I offer my heartfelt apologies for how the communication to parents and District staff was handled last week. I can absolutely assure you that the lessons learned on Thursday will be used to ensure that the lack of timely and on-going communication will not happen again."

In response to the altercations, the district will implement the following prevention efforts to "better ensure the safety of our students and staff moving forward."

In response to the altercations, the district will implement the following prevention efforts to "better ensure the safety of our students and staff moving forward."

• The district will hire three full-time security assistants starting for the 2019-20 school year. Gorrell said they anticipated adding these positions for the new high school, but they are now moving up their start dates.
• The district will put an anonymous tip line in place so students can report incidents or threats without fear of retaliation.
• Staff will be present in the hallways during passing time between classes.
• The district will continue to offer social emotional support groups for students, as well as encourage proactive conflict resolution.
• Another staff member will be stationed at the high school visitor entrance with a radio during the lunch hour.
• If a parent or family member arrives at school in response to their student's involvement in a dispute or behavioral matter, only the individuals listed in the PowerSchool database will be allowed to enter the school.
• Suspended students must complete a re-entry meeting with high school administration, and possibly other programs, prior to readmission.

Gorrell said a new fight intervention protocol will be in place in the fall of 2019. A response team trained in the protocol will be formed at the high school, with the goals of preventing student and staff injuries and minimizing law enforcement intervention.

As for communication, Gorrell said the system fell short because staff in charge of communications were pulled away from their positions due to the number of incidents in a short period of time.

"We have now reassigned tasks, changed our protocols, and created built-in system backups to ensure we don't leave our staff, students and parents in the dark in the future," the letter said.

Gorrell said that although the altercations brought safety to the forefront of everyone's minds, the district has been engaged in extensive work to increase safety within the schools, including a recently adopted five-year strategic plan.

"While some of our systems failed last week, our staff, high school admin team, and Verona Police Department did not," Gorrell said. "In the middle of the chaos, our staff, administrators, and officers unquestioningly put our students' safety and well-being first. To every staff member, administrator, and VPD officer that responded last Thursday: Thank you for your dedication to our students - on their best days and on their worst ones."

Read the entire letter below:

May 17, 2019
Dear VASD Parents and Staff:

As most of you are aware, last Thursday we experienced three physical altercations between students at our high school. While each incident occurred at a separate time, they all stemmed from interrelated personal disputes that escalated over the course of the day. These disputes were not gang related and no weapons were involved.
Nonetheless, these events resulted in injuries to one of our staff members, triggered significant distress to our students who witnessed the altercations, and caused substantial disruption to our school day since two separate classroom holds were issued and students returning from lunch were temporarily prevented from accessing the building.

Over the course of the past week, we have worked closely with the Verona Police Department to develop a full understanding of the events that took place and to identify all of the students who were involved so that appropriate consequences could be immediately implemented. At this point, all of the students who have been identified as participants in these altercations have been suspended from school, with additional consequences and charges pending in some cases.

Further compounding the matter for our families was the lack of timely communication about these events. The Board implemented a comprehensive Incident Response Communications policy and procedure in December 2018. This was created in response to feedback from parents requesting more predictable and timely information. Thursday was the first time that the highest level of response outlined in our new policy needed to be utilized…and we fell far short of hitting the mark. I offer my heartfelt apologies for how the communication to parents and District staff was handled last week. I can absolutely assure you that the lessons learned on Thursday will be used to ensure that the lack of timely and on-going communication will not happen again.

As a District, we firmly believe that a safe school environment is the absolute right of each of our students and is a critical foundation for successful learning. While Thursday’s events are not common, we recognize that any event that causes our students, families, or staff to question their safety carries a significant emotional impact and understandably damages the trust of our community. To that end, I want to provide you with some information about our response to the events on Thursday that will help us better ensure the safety of our students and staff moving forward.

Prevention efforts:
Staffing:
We will be hiring three full-time security assistants starting for the 2019-20 school year. These are new positions that we had anticipated for the new high school. However, we will be moving up the implementation of these positions so that they will in place at the beginning of the upcoming school year.

Anonymous Tip Line:
We will also be providing an anonymous tip reporting line to be in place no later than Fall, 2019. We want our students to have a safe way to report incidents or threats without fear of retaliation.

Proactive Conflict Resolution:
The best way to ensure our students’ safety is to prevent incidents like those last Thursday from occurring altogether. Proactive and preventative actions include:
• Staff presence in the hallways at passing time in between classes, including the addition of three new safety assistants mentioned above.
• Remind students if they “See Something, Say Something”, in addition to providing students, staff and parents with the new anonymous tip line mentioned above.
• Continued social emotional support groups for students who are struggling.
• Encouraging proactive conflict resolution for students before either party resorts to physical actions.
• Continued support of our staff’s efforts to build positive relationships with all of our students.

Supervision of Main Entrance During Lunch:
An additional staff member will be stationed at the high school visitor entrance with a radio during the lunch hour to provide a visual check of individuals entering the building. This person will be linked to administration and our School Resource Officer through two-way radio.

Parents on school grounds:
When parents/guardians or family members arrive at school in response to their student’s involvement in a dispute or other behavioral matter, only the individual(s) listed in our PowerSchool database will be allowed to enter the school, per our school visitor board policy. After entering, they will be immediately escorted to a designated meeting location. Any additional family members who desire to enter the building at that time will not be permitted to do so.

Readmission of suspended students:
If a student is suspended out of school (for any reason), suspended students must complete a re-entry meeting with high school administration prior to readmission in to school. Depending on the incident, the following conditions may also be required: Consultation with law enforcement; creation of a victim safety plan; implementation of a student behavior contract; utilization of restorative practices; utilization of off-site placement and/or other revised student educational programming, as appropriate.
Intervention related

Fight Intervention Protocol: To ensure the safety of our students and staff in the event of a physical altercation between students, we will be creating a new fight intervention protocol, which we will be implemented in the fall of 2019. This protocol is rooted in the goals of:
• Standardizing a response to physical altercations
• Preventing student injuries
• Preventing staff injuries
• Minimize law enforcement intervention and potential consequences
A response team will be formed at the high school and members of that team will be fully trained in this protocol.

Communication:
Due to the number of incidents in a condensed period of time, staff in charge of communications were pulled away from their positions. This resulted in the complete disruption of the communication stream to our families. We have now reassigned tasks, changed our protocols, and created built-in system backups to ensure we don’t leave our staff, students and parents in the dark in the future.

Please understand that we will share the information we have, to the extent that we are able, in an on-going manner. This means that the information may change as our understanding of a situation evolves. We will also work with the Verona Police Department to ensure that our communications are as consistent as possible, with the recognition that the District has more restrictions on the amount and type of information that we are able publish than the VPD. However, we believe that between these two sources, our community will have as complete an understanding as possible of any future situation that may arise, and will be kept informed of the steps that are being taken to ensure their student’s safety.

Some of you reading this may be years away from having a child at our high school. While this letter is focused on High School security in particular, student safety is not just a high school matter. If you have any questions about what measures are being taken at your child’s current school, we encourage you to reach out to your building principal for specific information.

Additionally, while the events on Thursday brought safety to the forefront of all of our minds, it’s important to point out that we have been engaged in extensive and ongoing work to increase overall safety within our district. The Board recently adopted a five-year strategic plan which included five key pillars. One of those pillars is ensuring our students have Safe and Inclusive Learning Environments. Another focus of the Board is allocating resources where they are needed most, rather than allocation based on a site’s enrollment number. Furthermore, the District, with the help of a committee of staff and parents, has also been engaged in the creation of a comprehensive plan that outlines consistent and objective behavioral expectations and responses. We, as a team, are committed to student and staff safety and are willing to do what it takes to achieve that priority.

One final note: While some of our systems failed last week, our staff, high school admin team, and Verona Police Department did not. In the middle of the chaos, our staff, administrators, and officers unquestioningly put our students’ safety and well-being first. To every staff member, administrator, and VPD officer that responded last Thursday: Thank you for your dedication to our students – on their best days and on their worst ones.

Thank you for your time reading this lengthy letter. Please reach out to me if you have comments, questions, suggestions or any additional concerns.

Kindest regards,
Dean Gorrell