August 9, 2022

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West Salem school leaders embrace responsibility toward school safety

Social media is driving school threats, making assessment challenging for those in charge of investigations

WEST SALEM, Wis. (WKBT) — Social media drove several threats made toward local school districts in recent months. Since September, News 8 Now has reported on at least eight school safety concerns that have resulted in an investigation or a school closure.

School district leaders have to stay a step ahead of these complicated threats.

For eight hours a day, five days a week, and nine months a year, parents place trust in people like Nate Ganrude to educate their children and keep them safe.

“I always wanted to get in the school,” said Ganrude, West Salem police school resource officer for the West Salem School District. “While I was working in Bangor, I got to go over to the schools, the Bangor School District, and kind of help out and do some stuff, but I really wanted to get more involved.

“I respond to calls for service and or any activity in the school that the school would need assistance,” he said.

Ganrude, teachers and other staff face a burden that only seems to grow over time.

“Unfortunately, we do have some negative effects going on with social media,” Ganrude said.

The proof is in the growing number of investigations and school closures since this school year began.

“Things can spread quickly and that’s kind of how some of those things develop,” Ganrude said. “They go viral and then once they do, we’re kind of trying to play catch-up as much as we can.”

A person can threaten a school under any name at any time behind a keyboard or a smartphone. The race against the clock begins to find out if the threat is credible.

“Making sure we start at the ground and all the information we have, we move forward from that and take a step at a time, try not to miss or forget anything,” Ganrude said.

Wisconsin’s Office of School Safety has only been around since 2018. The events at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., inspired Wisconsin Act 143.

“That actually gave us quite a bit of state grant funds to improve the school safety of all of the school buildings in the state,” said Kristen Devitt, director of the Office of School Safety at the Wisconsin Department of Justice.

That propelled creation of the anonymous Speak Up Speak Out threat reporting system. People can leave anonymous tips online about threats or concerns.

Devitt and her team implemented threat assessment techniques and other resources like mental health services. Along with critical incident response from the DOJ’s office to help districts deal with difficult situations.

“That protocol has been vetted and approved by the National Threat Assessment Center at the United States Secret Service,” Devitt said.

Act 143 also requires staff to report any “serious and imminent threat”.

“They’re required to report that immediately to law enforcement so that law enforcement can begin investigating,” Devitt said.

Ganrude works to keep everyone on the same page when someone identifies a threat.

“It’s maintaining that confidentiality, but also sharing the information that we can,” Ganrude said. “So, everyone feels like they understand what’s to the best of their ability what’s going on.”

Even if a threat is not believed to be credible, staff must act.

“Working for the common goal, which is obviously for the student body and for the kids,” Ganrude said.

Actions that can save lives, and preserve the trust parents place in schools to protect their children for those eight hours, every day.

Devitt said they’ve trained more than 7,000 people how to use Wisconsin’s threat assessment protocol. The Bureau of Justice Assistance awarded her office a $2 million grant from the Bureau of Justice Assistance to create a digital format for school threat assessment protocol.

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