Security sets table for success at SSC

Security sets table for success at SSC

By Tyler Dahlgren

Twelve years ago, South Sioux City received the Safe Schools/Healthy Students grant, vaulting the safety of students and staff to the front of the district’s list of priorities.

In Rebecca Eckhardt’s 17 years with the district, which serves a community of about 13,000 nestled against the banks of the Missouri River in Northeast Nebraska, she has seen a steady commitment to school safety. Steady, and never complacent.

Two and a half years ago, after a model that had been in place for nearly a decade had seemingly run its course, school officials followed the Nebraska Department of Education’s recommendation to “I Love U Guys”, a foundation born out of a tragic 2006 hostage crisis at Platte Canyon High School in Bailey, CO that claimed the life of 16-year-old Emily Keyes.

The foundation’s approach is a proactive one, providing guidelines and procedures for students and staff to follow in the event of a dangerous situation in the building.

“I Love U Guys” was the last text message Keyes sent to her parents, who founded the foundation with a motto that mirrors its mission statement.

You don’t choose tragedy. You can choose your response.

“Our last standard response protocol was fine, and it did what it was supposed to do, but it wasn’t speaking a real clear language,” said Eckhardt, the district’s Director of Student Services. “Any time you experience a dangerous situation, you need things to be as simple as possible.”

Ben Schultz is principal of Lewis & Clark Elementary, and serves as Safety Coordinator. He has been in the district for three years, and encountered some vagueness concerning the safety protocols and procedures his new school had in place. Some staff didn’t completely grasp preexisting terminology.

“We talked as a safety team and asked ourselves ‘Is there another protocol out there easier for people to understand in the heat of the moment?’” he said.

There was.

NDE’s State School Security Director Jolene Palmer’s recommendation pointed SSC’s search westward to Colorado and the I Love U Guys Foundation, which fit each hole of concern their previous model left unfilled.

The school’s adopted Standard Response Protocol (SRP) has a direct premise fit to consistently respond to any given scenario using four specific actions: Lockout, Lockdown, Evacuate, and Shelter.

Five specialty teams were developed across the district to tighten response systems: Safety & Security, Parent Reunification, District Communication, District Crisis, and District Threat Assessment.

The model spoke a language of common sense, said Eckhardt, and was free of cost.

“There are a lot of models that can be quite expensive with all of the training and everything that goes along with it, but I Love U Guys has a mission of trying to get this standard response protocol in all schools and agencies so we are all speaking the same language,” Eckhardt said.

Given the current climate, and all the unfortunate things happening in the world, Director of Communication and Foundation Lance Swanson felt it was the right time for a revamp in school safety. It helped, he said, having Schultz step up to the plate to lead the overhaul and implementation, a process that included local law enforcement and fire rescue as well.

“Every school in the state, for the most part, has cameras,” Swanson, in his 18th year at SSC after previously serving as Technology Director, said. “What makes us different is our ability to coordinate them, our work sharing with the police department and the other safety folks that come in. Our relationship with them, and the collaboration that goes on, is what makes us different. I can have 18 eyes across the entire building, and then be on the phone with the police department, which is huge.”

Implementation was a city-wide process, Schultz said. In addition to involving the police and the fire department, Schultz presented the new model at a city council meeting, to the board of education, and to parents.

“We even had it (a video) playing at conference time for the parents to get a better idea of what exactly this is,” Schultz said. “Parents play a big role. We want to communicate with them as much as possible.”

The community has contributed extensively, too. Each classroom in every building throughout the district is equipped with a “safety bucket”, which came from Blue Bunny. Students actually sprayed the buckets, which still had ice cream remnants in them, clean.

Eckhardt describes the implementation process as an aggressive one.

“It was multifaceted, too,” she said. “There were multiple trainings with Mr. Schultz co-leading with the School Resource Officer (SRO) at every single building. We required 100 percent of our staff to be trained on that standard response protocol. We educated them on what preparation looks like for every scenario. We practiced, and practiced, and practiced some more.”

Training extended to bus drivers, cafeteria workers, substitute teachers, maintenance workers and beyond.

“And then we re-trained them,” Schultz, who will present on I Love U Guys during Administrators’ Days in Kearney, said.

For intruder or barricade fail training, police sported padded safety suits and attempted to break into classrooms. Staff would team up to tackle the “intruder” to the ground, or use a makeshift tripwire to take them down. A funny moment, said Swanson, but immeasurably valuable.

“It gave them the ability to say ‘I can do this if it happens.’,” Schultz added.

Training is videotaped and shared throughout the district.

“A lot of these teachers come from our 9 different buildings and don’t know one another,” Swanson said. “They come to our meetings, and the way they work together, I think that has been the most impressive thing to me.”

Because of the common language applied, Eckhardt said, teachers able to instantly click. Furthermore, the staff was quick to accept the new procedures and more than eager to adapt.

“They feel empowered,” Eckhardt said. “A lot of the things you see here are a result of their questions and their suggestions.”

Collaboration with the city’s first responders has been on the uptick for the last two and a half years, too, though Eckhardt said the two entities have always shared an “awesome” relationship.

“We have the best Fire and Police around,” she said. “We don’t see them as separate. Almost any email I send to Ben has our SRO’s and Chief of Police and superintendent included as well.”

By the time she checks back for a response, the issue is usually handled.

The sentiment is echoed by the other side, too.

“We think it is very important to start building relationships with kids at an early age,” said first-year Elementary SRO Chad Cleveland, who previously spent time as an officer, an undercover narcotics officer, and in the K-9 unit. “It’s important to let the kids know we are here for them. We aren’t just here to arrest people. We are here to help.”

If you want to boost an officer’s ego, Cleveland suggests sending him or her to an elementary school.

“Let the kids come up and hug you,” he said. “This is the best job in the world. It really is. These kids are great.”

As the district continues to engulf itself in the program, its relationship with South Sioux City’s first responders grows stronger. The same can be said for everyone holding a stake in the school district.

“People are very proactive,” Eckhardt said. “We contract our busing services, and a couple weeks ago I was talking to our transportation director and he said ‘I’d like to drive all the emergency routes, in case we have to evacuate all schools simultaneously. I’d like to drive them with the police on the buses and the drivers driving their routes’.”

Eckhard told the transportation director to go for it. The police were happy to ride along.

“They collaboratively identified things that we will need to do different, how many buses would be required at each school, traffic patterns, which intersections need to be blocked off by police,” Eckhardt said. “None of this was prompted. We could not do this alone. We need all of them.”

To the safety team at South Sioux City, security sets the table for success and opens the door to the special moments that take place throughout the course of a school day.

“If our students and staff can’t come in to our buildings and feel like they are safe, they are not going to be ready to learn, no matter how wonderful of a lesson or activity the teacher has planned,” Eckhardt said. “The kids are not going to be in a frame of mind to learn if they feel the school is unsafe, just like the teachers are not going to be in the frame of mind to do their very best teaching if they don’t feel like we have a plan in place for every possible scenario.”

Swanson said the team is already planning ahead for next year, with a new motto playing off the school’s Cardinal mascot (“C It, Say It”) and a spaced-out timeline for further implementation, one suggestion they would offer (besides looking into I Love U Guys in the first-place) to schools in search for a new safety standard.

“We didn’t do too much too soon,” said Schultz. “It was really ‘We’ve got a plan for your safety and here is how we’re rolling it out.’ We were very up front and open with our staff right from the start.”

Safety has settled into South Sioux City’s culture.

“When Ben and Rebecca come to you with something, it’s not just a bunch of fluff or to check off boxes,” Swanson said. “When they come, it’s for real and for the right reasons.”

The reason, 100 percent of the time, is the well-being of South Sioux City’s students and staff.


Check out the I Love U Guys website at “It was a game changer for us,” said Eckhardt.