August 12, 2022 / Modified aug 12, 2022 10:37 a.m.

Sunnyside School District town hall highlights the need for school safety

Following the school shootings in Uvalde, Texas, the district is looking to close gaps

360 sunnyside usd classroom A classroom in the Sunnyside Unified School District.

This story originally aired as part of The Buzz

As schools have been preparing 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 it a top priority, auditing its processes and physical plant to make it as difficult as possible for any kind of active-shooter event in any of their schools.

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

The murders in Uvalde, Texas sparked broad fear and concern among parents and students across the country and put school officials on heightened alert. In Tucson's Sunnyside schools, the new district superintendent Jose Gastelum called a Town Hall over the summer break to foster open discussion with all members of his community.

"It's important to us that you are here joining us in this effort, We know that this is a community effort and a shared responsibility…we definitely want to instill a sense of comfort, and the way we do that is by being transparent," Gastelum began the meeting.

He said that clarity across the Sunnyside community would help make sure everyone is alert to any possible warning signs

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

Sunnyside's Director of Security Ryan Powell carried that theme forward. He said Sunnyside's physical defenses are fairly strong. All schools have wrought-iron fences, fortified lobbies, and 650 surveillance cameras tied directly to law enforcement. He said the district has good protocols and he doesn't need new technology, but communication, training, and awareness among staff are key.

"It's complacency that will bite us,” he said “The threat assessment is the big thing. It's finding those red flags and investigating those early. Are we complacent with them? Sometimes we are. Sometimes we say, that's not viable. He's a good kid, he's got good parents, instead of going through the system every single time. So I think that's one of our weaknesses. We haven't been thorough on every single assessment…we see something we say something,” Powell said.

Trust is key to this kind of transparency - If you don't trust the system, If you don't trust your leaders, you won't speak up. One of the most intransigent trust issues across the country is tied to law enforcement in the schools. Many parents worry they are only there to round up so-called trouble makers and arrest them. Sunnyside has three TPD officers in the district and one Security Resource Officer - or SRO from the Pima County Sheriff's department

TPD Captain Mickey Peterson says the department is not in the business of arresting students. He says they have a strong desire to build trust in the Sunnyside district. He says to do that, they strive to hire locally, - using officers who live in the district and - and in many cases - graduated from Sunnyside.

He says having that sense of belonging to the community - what he calls a sense of ownership - is vital to building trust. He says it’s all about building relationships - and he says they have built some strong relationships in Sunnyside. He gave an example of how this can work in the field.

"I want to share one case where we had a 13-year-old Sunnyside student barricaded and armed in an apartment,” he said. “This is a very dangerous situation. It could have gone in a lot of bad directions. When we got there, we asked where does he go to school. And they said he's a Sunnyside student. We called one of the officers that Sunnyside uses and she knew the student, had talked to him, knew what he responded to, knew how to communicate to him, and by putting that officer up front and pulling back the other officers. She was able to talk him out put the weapon down and just came out and gave her a hug and we got him to the professionals who could really help him…and that connection we had made with Sunnyside made that solution possible," Peterson explained.

But in order for that type of success, stakeholders across the community - 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 services, and non-profit organizations work to educate the community on what to look for and how to respond. Its a big job and there's a long way to go, but there is a clear recognition of how important it is to achieve and progress is being made - with groups like Aware and Liberty Partnership Kino Neighborhoods Coalition - LPKNC - are taking leading roles in providing both mental health services and education.

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

"We need to do that as a community, and that means we have to destigmatize, within our community and with people of color predominantly Hispanic, Latinx, black,” he said, “Native Americans that we have to stop looking at it as though it is negative - that people are loco, they're crazy, they can't get help. We have to talk about it so we don't get to instances where folks end up pulling triggers," Givens said.

All of the stakeholders at the Town Hall agreed that they were not in search of a destination, but that success would be a continuing process, built on an intentional and flexible commitment to learning, communication, and transparency going forward.

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