SALT LAKE CITY — Juab School Board member Mary Nielson's recent tour of Red Cliffs Elementary took a turn she hadn't anticipated: a lockdown while troopers searched for a suspect who had ditched her car in the school parking lot.
"I experienced firsthand our school resource officer locking a school down and it wasn't a drill. I watched the personnel at that school take control, immediately. There was no confusion. They knew exactly what to do and they did it, and I have grandkids in that school," Nielson told members of Utah State Board of Education, which held a study session on school safety Friday.
As she waited out the lockdown in the school office, Nielson said she was grateful that the school board had decided, because of the location and size of the Nephi elementary school, to install video cameras.
"I kept thinking 'Oh my heck, we've got to broaden that,' " she said. "We've got to have them in every one of our schools."
According to police reports, security videos showed the woman who had led state troopers on a high-speed chase attempted to enter the school through the front door and several locked doors outside.
Soon after, authorities received a call that a couple had offered the woman a ride after they discovered her hiding near a house about half block from the school. As the car approached Mona, the couple grew concerned and the woman jumped out of their car near a gas station, police said. Police found the woman standing near the station and arrested her.
When the school lockdown ended, Nielson said, she went to check on her grandchildren along with the other kids in classes.
She reported that her grandson, who is in kindergarten, told her: "Oh Grandma, it was fine. We knew exactly what to do. We knew our teacher was going to keep us safe."
His teacher, meanwhile, was emotional and crying because she took to heart the responsibility of keeping 22 children safe, Nielson said, noting the teacher told her "I would have given my life to protect those kids."
"The person who needed counseling the next day wasn't my grandson, it was that teacher. She needed to be reassured she had done the right thing," Nielson told the board.
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Sydnee Dickson said school safety is front of mind for school administrators every day. But in the wake of the Feb. 14 shooting in Parkland, Florida, that left 17 dead as well as a Jan. 23 shooting in Kentucky that killed two and wounded 18, keeping schools a safe place to learn and work has taken on heightened significance.
At a recent meeting of the Council of Chief State School Officers, the state commissioners of Florida and Kentucky shared lessons from the field. Dickson said they recommend a three-pronged approach: crisis prevention, crisis management and crisis resolution.
Prevention strategies include limiting access to schools, setting safety drills and protocols, and community involvement.
Schools also need to focus on student health and well-being, including mental health.
Equally important is having a crisis management plan, which includes local and state partners, she said.
Once the crisis has ended, teachers, students and school employees need access to counseling and recovery strategies, and schools need to figure out the logistics of missed time at school, credit recovery or how to address graduation requirements when there has been a major disruption due to a school crisis, Dickson said.
During the legislative session, after state lawmakers learned there was more revenue than earlier estimates had suggested, Dickson said she and other state education leaders "hatched" a school safety plan, "put numbers to it" and approached legislative leaders seeking $65 million of one-time money.
Dickson said she boldly suggested that instead of funding a college building that lawmakers earmark funds for public school safety initiatives.
"We know they were having those conversations," Dickson said.
But in the end, lawmakers were not confident about what was really needed to enhance school safety.
"They were afraid of getting ahead of it," she said.
But it would be worthwhile, Dickson said, to put together a comprehensive plan and approach lawmakers again, particularly when more is known about the revenue that can be raised under the Our Schools Now compromise that could be used for this purpose.
State school board member Terryl Warner, who is on the newly formed Utah Safe Schools Commission assembled by Rep. Mike Kennedy, R-Alpine, said shootings are one aspect of the school safety conversation but far from the sole focus of the commissioms work.
"The commission, we're not focusing on school shooters, active shooters. We're focusing on school safety as a whole. That's the conversation we need to have," Warner said.
Many children have experienced trauma in other ways, and schools need to respond to their needs with trauma-informed practices and mental health resources, she said, noting there is a significant need for school social workers.Comment on this story
"We've got to get away from the idea that every day is an active shooter day. It's every day kids living with trauma, trying to go to school and trying to learn. It's really hard when you grow up in domestic violence to go to school and concentrate. It's really hard when there's no food in the house to go to school and concentrate," she said.
Teachers are there to teach, be an example and to protect children, she said.
"The social worker is a really important piece in helping them get through traumatic events," she said.
Correction: An earlier headline on this story said the lockdown was experienced by a Utah School Board member. Mary Nielson sits on the Juab School Board.