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Park City school officials address student and campus safety

Row of blue school lockers.
Helistockter - stock.adobe.com

School shootings in the U.S., a student assaulting a classmate at Treasure Mountain Junior High School last year, and the recent altercation between a student and a tennis coach have put student safety in the local spotlight.

Carolyn Synan is Park City School District's chief student service officer. She said the district has hired full-time social workers for Ecker Hill Middle School, Treasure Mountain Junior High School, and Park City High School this year. Elementary schools share two full-time social workers two to three days a week between all four campuses.

Synan said the most critical safety mechanism for children is to talk to a trusted adult if they have concerns about their safety or the safety of their classmates. She said the social workers are trained as interventionists and know how to handle situations where students feel unsafe.

"We get into these situations where we didn't know, so we can't help the students solve it or solve it on their own if it needs to come to that," Synan said. "We have such a great staff here at Park City School District that I feel like they know. They've been here. They know the students and they can tell. But also, our students are vocal, they ask for help, and if they don't, we're trained to look for those signs."

One area of school safety that the district is still working on is building security.

Park City School District Chief Operations Officer Mike Tanner is in charge of facilities. He said principals must keep all outside doors closed and locked during school hours.

But the open campus at the high school has students coming and going all day long. Some junior high students walk from Treasure to the high school for classes throughout the day.

Tanner said that’s been a concern for years. He said students leave doors propped open as they come and go.

He said the Uvalde massacre was a reminder of the importance of securing school buildings.

"A big takeaway from Uvalde was that the perpetrator gained access to the school through an exterior door that was open," Tanner said. "And so, you know, obviously, if we can have all the protocols in place to protect our kids, but if there's one break in the chain that's designed to keep them safe, that being an open door, all that work is for naught."

The district now uses software that alerts the high school front office when a door is left open anywhere in the building. Some restricted doors have very loud screamer alarms, and Tanner said those act as deterrents to students.

He said preventing weapons from being brought into schools involves a variety of safety measures, and the most critical violence prevention is kids speaking up if they suspect any threats.

"We've looked at potentially some unobtrusive types of screening devices, similar to what you would see at an airport," Tanner said. "But we're not sure that the community here is ready for that yet. The biggest thing is putting eyes on kids as they walk into the schools. And I think the other piece of it too is the internal threat assessment that we've put in place to hopefully get wind of that kind of stuff before it ever manifests itself into a kid walking into the school with a weapon."

Tanner said if a student uses the Safe UT app to report an anonymous concern, it immediately goes to law enforcement and the school district. He said the district also scrubs school emails for keywords.

Monitoring outside social media, he admits, is complex, but he said the community plays an essential role in keeping kids safe in school.

"If parents can just encourage children to be a part of their own safety, by if they see something, mention something," Tanner said. "By pulling the door shut, if they see one open, by if they hear of anything that potentially could compromise the safety of their friends or the school, to just let a counselor or a teacher or principal know. It'll be met with confidence, and we'll get the child the help that they need."

Tanner said studies of school shootings and violent episodes show that most often, threats had been circulating through social media before the events occurred.

KPCW reporter Carolyn Murray covers Summit and Wasatch County School Districts. She also reports on wildlife and environmental stories, along with breaking news. Carolyn has been in town since the mid ‘80s and raised two daughters in Park City.