East construction

The office was relocated and a new entrance was installed at Mankato East High School in 2016. The new entrance funnels visitors into the office during the school day. The improvements were funded by a bond referendum. File photo

MANKATO — East High School Principal Jeff Dahline recently gave parents a tour of new security measures at the remodeled school.

But first the principal and a school social worker talked about a new initiative that seeks to help students through social and behavioral challenges.

A group of East parent leaders organize semimonthly meetings with school administrators and staff to discuss an issue or idea of their choosing. In the wake of the mass shooting in Parkland, Florida, they asked for their March gathering to focus on school security.

The best way for educators to keep their students safe is to “create a culture of inclusion and trust,” Dahline told the handful of concerned parents.

Social worker Mary Beth Patterson told parents about restorative justice circles — an intervention technique recently introduced at the school.

The program shifts from a traditional punishment-based response to a student-centered dialogue of how students can rectify their mistakes or mediate conflict with classmates, Patterson said.

Students who've committed an infraction sit down with Patterson, their parents and their teachers or classmates who were involved to discuss five questions: what happened, what were you thinking, what have you thought about since, who has been affected and what do you need to do to make things right?

Other times Patterson leads circles with groups of students who aren't in trouble but need help resolving some friction. Participants take turns answering the same questions.

The circles already are making students more comfortable coming forward with concerns, Patterson said.

“The circles really are a foundation, I hope, to creating a culture of safety,” she said.

Parents also learned how a referendum-funded remodel completed this fall included a number of building security upgrades.

The building now has a secure primary entryway and all other doors are locked to the outside when class is in session, Dahline said.

Visitors during the school day cannot get into the school until they've checked in with the security officer. They must provide a photo identification and their information is entered into a database in which staff can flag people who should not be admitted for varied reasons. 

When the security officer isn't greeting visitors and escorting them to their destination, he is monitoring live feeds from the 130 security cameras now spread throughout the school.

The security officer and other school staff have emergency buttons that can immediately put the school into lockdown. The buttons trigger lockdown warning lights and close and lock doors in several hallways that were installed so the school could be sectioned off if there is an intruder.

One safety feature the school does not have is bulletproof glass, which was too costly. The refurbished school has a number of interior windows between classrooms and hallways that wouldn't protect students as well as walls if a gunman was able to bypass other blockades. But those windows help keep students safe on a day-to-day basis, Dahline said, because it allows teachers to monitor hallways at all times.

During lockdown drills, students and teachers practice piling furniture in front of classroom doors, turning off lights and hiding behind furniture or in a corner away from windows.

Several of the parents said they felt reassured by what they learned at the meeting.

They had one suggestion of how the educators could better keep their children safe: Give students plans for what they should do if they are not in a classroom when an intruder enters the building. After learning the lockdown drills only address what to do in a classroom, the parents suggested more scenarios be added identifying best escape routes and hiding spots if students are caught in another location such as the cafeteria or a hallway.

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