TONASKET — Soft lockdowns in the Tonasket School District and a flurry of rumors surrounding them is likely what made nearly 20 local residents attend the Wednesday, Oct. 31, school board meeting.
During the meeting, parents sought the board’s assistance to address apparent mental health and drug abuse issues within the school district.
“I was just wanting to address a bunch of rumors flying around town,” parent Seth Thomas said.
He asked if rumors were true that the district couldn’t run a drug dog through the hallways without a search warrant.
Superintendent Steve McCullough said the rumor was “not true at all.”
“There’s been some goings-on in the school that have not been addressed publicly at all and the rumors are running rampant,” Thomas said. “I guess I would just like to see some sort of public address to the parents out there instead of everybody just working each other up.”
Thomas acknowledged privacy laws are an issue in some of the cases, but “there should be some sort of public” information available.
McCullough said the district has a weekly newsletter that is distributed to over 800 parents.
“I send a weekly update every week; it goes out to every parent that has an email address in the system,” McCullough said. “In that email … I address a lot of these kinds of things; that’s a way to kind of keep up on some of these things on a district level.”
McCullough said the district tracks how many parents actually read the message, prompting Thomas to question how many read the latest one.
“It’s got to be pretty low, I would think,” Thomas said.
“It is,” McCullough said, noting about 54 of more than 800 parents read the latest update. “We’re trying really hard to communicate in different ways, but obviously it’s not working as well as we want it to.”
Thomas questioned whether staff members have made students aware of counseling services available through the district.
High school Principal Brian Ellis and middle school Principal Kristi Krieg said information has been provided to students, but Krieg noted it’s “a work in progress.”
McCullough said mental health professionals have urged the district to “be very thoughtful about what (information) you put out to kids and staff, because if it’s done poorly, you can create more problems than you’ve helped solve.”
“The issues we’re struggling with are issues within our communities, they’re issues within our country, and we can’t solve this alone,” McCullough said.
“Our kids know more than we do a lot of times,” Ellis said. “They have Snapchat, Instagram … they know stuff before we do.”
He said there’s a culture of students not telling on each other but, “when it comes to safety of your friends, we need to encourage our kids to talk to each other and talk to an adult, so we can help them.”
He said the district already has a filter in place on students’ school emails to pick up on key phrases and words such as “suicide” and “self-harm.”
“We are addressing kids all the time,” he said. “All of our kids are getting addressed in that way.”
Krieg echoed that, stating the district has an online anonymous tip reporting service – SafeSchools - through the district’s website.
Parent Renne Bretz asked the board if students have been shown how to use the service.
“I think they (students) went through step by step with it last year and then a reminder for it this year,” Kreig said.
Parent Brittany Wilson asked what the guidelines and protocol for SafeSchool tips are.
Ellis said information is received and district officials can then respond to the message and ask for names and additional information.
Bretz said she was also concerned about alleged drug abuse in the district.
“When was the last time we had a drug dog here?” Bretz asked.
“Not since I’ve been here, but I’ve asked for one,” Ellis said.
Ellis was hired by the district in August 2016.
McCullough said a drug dog was scheduled to make a sweep through the high school, but “they scheduled it for the same day we had a national earthquake (drill).”
He said he heard of the planned sweep two days before, but “we couldn’t reschedule.”
McCullough said he and Ellis have been reaching out to local authorities to pursue a sweep soon.
“We’ve brought drug dogs through this place many times,” McCullough said.
“When was the last time there was one here?” Bretz pressed.
Kreig said there was one at the middle school two years ago.
“It needs to be weekly because my kids are telling me that they’re seeing drug deals in the classrooms, on campus, off campus, everywhere.” Bretz said. “I think that we need to be getting more ahead of this and needs to be weekly, daily … make the dog live at school.”
Kreig said K-9s cannot go in the classroom and cannot physically search students. She said empowering students to speak to officials and use SafeSchools is a place to report suspicious activity.
She said K-9s can be beneficial, but also pose a “double-edged sword.”
“My fear is, that if a kid does have marijuana on them and a drug dog does come through … and they don’t catch anybody, they’re kind of like, ‘Oh, I got away with that. I outsmarted them,’” she said.
Kreig also noted many marijuana-sniffing dogs have been decommissioned since the drug became legal to adults age 21 and older.
“But we have more than marijuana going on here,” Bretz said.
McCullough added, “They don’t pick up on prescription drugs, either.”
Ellis suggested a drug dog demonstration for students to see how effective K-9s can be.
Wilson pointed out that mental health is a big concern, too.
She said she was concerned with counselors allegedly distributing rubber bands to suicidal students.
Snapping a rubber band is believed to be a safer alternative to cutting but is still considered a form of self-injury.
Board Chairwoman Joyce Fancher asked Ellis if he was aware of that practice in the district.
“I don’t know about that,” Ellis said. “But when students have expressed that they are feeling like they might want to hurt themselves they go to our counselors.”
McCullough said school counselors work as “triage,” and staff from Okanogan Behavior HealthCare (OBHC) step in to assist.
“How often is OBHC here, regularly or just as needed?” asked Bretz.
“They’re here every day now,” McCullough said.
“We could use three or four of them all day long,” Ellis said.
Ellis said he would investigate the rubber band issue.
Another parent questioned why the district isn’t more open with an “accurate account of what is happening,” regarding lockdowns.
McCullough said state and federal laws protect student records, and too much detail - especially in small communities - can violate those laws.
“I want you to know, I’m glad that people are willing to come and talk,” Fancher said. “It means a lot, because as you can tell by my reactions, I don’t always know what’s going on and I don’t think Brian or Kristi had heard the rubber band story, either.”
McCullough charged the residents to look into the community and find ways to combat these issues as well.
“(The) staff here are working extremely hard on these issues,” he said. “But we cannot do it alone. We need parents and leaders in the community helping a lot if we’re going to overcome some of the mental health issues and some of the drug issues in our community.”
Tonasket Mayor Dennis Brown called for improved communications between the district and the city.
“If we can communicate better, it’s better for all of us,” Brown said.
McCullough said there have been three to four “soft” lockdowns since the beginning of the school year. In a soft lockdown, students can’t leave the school building, but teaching continues.