Security protocol ‘information gap’ leaves St. Paul teachers, staff feeling ‘helpless’ to respond to violence; Security director responds

St. Paul Public School violence solutions

St. Paul Public School violence solutions

St. Paul Public Schools gave 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS a tour of its security operations headquarters Monday following the release of a districtwide safety survey in late May that revealed nearly 80% of responding high school staff have witnessed or experienced physical violence in school.

That same survey showed that when staff witness violence, like a fight, they “often felt helpless to prevent, improve or resolve the situation,” which is what 5 EYEWITNESS NEWS asked the district’s head of security to respond to.

“To hear that and to see that in writing, it’s hard. Responding to violence in schools is an incredibly difficult thing to do,” St. Paul Public Schools director of security and emergency management Laurie Olson reacted.

Asked what the protocol is for teachers and staff when they witness violence, Olson said, “If they’re near their classroom, it would be to go into their classroom, make that call to the main office, and then close the door and keep the students inside the classroom.”

Walking away to report the incident is easier said than done, according to St. Paul Federation of Educators president Leah VanDassor.

“It’s very difficult for a teacher to walk away from that, even to turn and make a phone call to the office to say come help,” she said in an interview ahead at the union’s office Monday.

Intervening, according to policy, is up to the district’s trained staff, Olson said. School Support liaisons (SSLs) and school administration should be the first to respond, she said.

SSLs, referred to in schools as “blue shirts,” came on the scene in 2019. They are unarmed district staff, equipped with pepper spray, handcuffs, CPR equipment and recently, naloxone.

Latoya Mitchell is a districtwide SSL.

“I’m able to de-escalate and just relate to them and listen to them and they able to talk to me without any judgment,” she said of working with the students. “I just love them.”

In the schools, there’s one assigned SSL per middle school and 2-3 in each high school, Olson said.

“I’m not exactly sure what their role is,” VanDassor said when asked.

“I think that the training for [SSLs] has been a lot more clear for them as they go along. But that information has not necessarily been shared with school staff as to what the role of that person is,” she said.

Security protocols and staff roles in violent situations that are well-known among those working in the district’s Emergency Operations Center aren’t as clear to staff and teachers in the school, according to the survey data.

“If everyone understood what everyone’s roles were in the building, and it was clear what the procedures were, we’d be going a lot farther to all be on the same page with what that security could look like,” VanDassor added.

Asked if all staff are expressly trained on violence response procedures, Olson said, “Yes.”

“Not to blame the pandemic on everything, but we were down for two years really from the classroom,” she added. “So what we see is that we have to spend more time training on just basic protocols.”

Olson said her team is putting together security informational resources and sessions ahead of the 2023-2024 school year.

“In fact, our emergency management team has built already some beautiful online models, so we can do in-person training but then also have like some retraining and just some, like, mid-year ‘let’s review our procedures,'” she continued.

St. Paul Public Schools is also looking to hire 15 additional SSLs. 32 are currently on staff. 38 would be considered full staff, Olson said, and they’ve added a few positions too.

Beyond training, Olson said she’d like to see the return of some sort of formal police partnership, something other administrative staff recommended in the survey.

“Would it look like a traditional SRO program? I don’t think so,” Olson said. “But I would like to see something.”

The union would like to see more support staff instead, VanDassor said.

“We’d love to say that we’ve got all this stuff in place and that it’s ready to go, but I think when you don’t have enough counselors, and you’ve got students waiting for days, weeks, sometimes months to see someone, that doesn’t help with their immediate needs,” she continued.

“And that’s what’s kind of been missing all along, I think.”