News Gathering

“BEST OF THE HUB: MPR demolition isolates students”

(Published in the Nov. 21, 2014 issue of The HUB and on on Nov. 25, 2014)

About: With another journalist, I wrote about how my school’s lack of a multi-purpose room isolates disabled students. The district quickly responded, contracting with an architectural firm to design a new building. Interviewing disabled students has legal restrictions, requiring us to get consent from parents.

Award: The article won the national JEA Student Impact Award: “‘These high school journalists clearly demonstrate the power of the student press and the impact it can have,’ said Kenson Siver, chair of the Impact Award panel.”

By Kellen Browning and Grace Richey, Staff–

The interior of the south gym on a rainy day is a bleak scene: a group of students gather around collapsible tables along the northeast corner and the fluorescent lights illuminate only a portion of the building.

“It’s kind of dark in here,” senior Jessica Roeckl-Navazio notes as she eats her lunch, isolated from the rest of the student body.

Roeckl-Navazio, who is accompanied by a paraeducator, is one of the many students unable to leave campus during lunchtime. Because Davis High does not have a multi-purpose room (MPR), she has to eat lunch in the south gym on rainy days.

Although Roeckl-Navazio would like to have an MPR to eat lunch in, she noted that “probably by the time they build one, I won’t be here.”

After mold spores were discovered in the MPR in 2010, the building was closed and demolished in 2012.
In a 2013 interview with The HUB, school board trustee Sheila Allen said, “We decided not to rebuild the MPR because we did not currently have access to the amount of funds [estimated at $11 million] needed to build a new one.”

Instead, a shade structure was built in the vacated space with the intent of creating a place for students to congregate and eat lunch. However, the structure provides little protection from the elements.

While most students can make do by eating with friends in classrooms and hallways or leave campus during rainy weather, some students—like those with disabilities that restrict them to campus—lack a place to eat lunch when it rains.

“The majority [of the students I work with] need supervision not only eating, they have to be supervised on what they eat, and some of them need support eating […]” special education teacher Leticia Vasquez said.

“We’re not going to make our students eat out in the cold,” Vasquez said. “The majority of our students aren’t going to want to get wet–it’s not comfortable.”

In addition to inconveniencing students, DHS lunch facilities may not meet state requirements. A section of the California Code of Regulations (which governs state agencies) mandates, “Multipurpose/cafeteria area (indoor or outdoor) shall be adequately sized and flexibly designed to protect students from the elements and to allow all students adequate eating time during each lunch period […]”

District Superintendent Winfred Roberson agrees that the shade structure does not meet state standards, but believes that “making the south gym accessible and permitting [students] to eat lunch in indoor hallways and classrooms” is an adequate solution to the problem.

“[The current shade structure] was the best structure we could provide, at the time, given the budget crisis. The current structure is not the ideal facility for a large comprehensive high school like DHS and we want better for our students,” Roberson said.

Roberson believes that the school is adapting to life without an MPR and that students can adjust.

But although DHS has functioned for several years without an MPR, activities director Eric Morgan argues that just because students and teachers are making do does not mean the district can hold off on building a new one.

In May of 2014, Morgan compiled a list of reasons why teachers and students need a new MPR.

“From the outside, it might look like we just don’t need an MPR because people are adapting, so I wanted to make it very clear to the people who control the money that adapting does not mean this is good for our community [or that] this is good for our school,” Morgan said.

Morgan identified 22 different issues that have arisen since the demolition of the MPR, including the necessity of holding events like sports banquets at other venues and the absence of storage space at DHS.

Morgan sent the list to the school district with a message that included, “[the lack of an MPR] marginalizes our low-income and disabled students, who are fed by our school and so have no other option than scramble to find shelter from the weather in the winter, crowding the wet and dirty floors throughout Davis Senior High.”

The response? According to school board trustee Susan Lovenburg, “there are no current plans to build a new MPR.”

According to Morgan, the lack of an MPR does not just push aside students with disabilities; it excludes them from interaction with the rest of the school.

“From my perspective, it just marginalizes them to their resource [special education] classroom, and instead of being in the MPR with all the other students, they’re in their resource classroom […] separated from other students,” Morgan said.

“The philosophical issue I have is that we don’t have a central place for all students to hang out. We’ve got niches for different groups to hang out […] we don’t have a place for those niches to mix and mingle and interact and share.”

Senior Michael Hale, another student unable to leave campus at lunch, also wishes the school had a place where everyone could socialize. Because of the lack of such a place, Hale has to eat in his resource classroom on rainy days.

“When it’s raining, I eat inside in M-1 and just play music on my computer,” Hale said.

Hale thinks that a communal building like an MPR would allow him and his classmates to interact more with other students.

“[I would like to have an MPR] because you can meet new people, say ‘Hi’ to them and […] you can talk to your friends about stuff that’s going on in your life,” Hale said.

“VIDEO: Students with disabilities out in the cold”

(Published on on Nov. 25, 2015)

About: We put our print story online, accompanied by a video about the problems caused by the lack of a multi-purpose room. We presented the video at a school board meeting upon request, which helped the district come to a decision about approving a new building.

“New emergency response system improves school communication”

(Published in the Dec. 18, 2014 issue of The Davis Enterprise and online)

About: I used an exciting lede to liven up what otherwise could have been a dull story about an important school safety feature. I didn’t realize it, but the connections and contacts I made in this story would be useful later.

“Your student is safe.”

Those four words purposefully placed at the beginning of the Davis Joint Unified School District’s emergency message serve as a quick reassurance to parents and guardians that they shouldn’t panic: Their children are unharmed.

But the emergency message system the district employs for safety drills and actual emergencies has recently undergone drastic change.

SchoolMessenger, a tool previously used to keep track of statistics like absences and tardies, is now the primary method used to contact parents during emergencies.

Maria Clayton, the school district’s public information officer, saw potential for SchoolMessenger as an emergency communications system for a number of reasons.

Perhaps most importantly, while tools like School Loop are opt-in — parents can choose whether they want to receive emails or notifications — SchoolMessenger alerts must be received.

“This is the best way to make sure we’re reaching every person effectively,” Clayton said.

SchoolMessenger also allows the sender to choose the form of communication: email or phone call. Depending on how urgent the message is, it could be a general memo that goes to the top two contacts on each student’s emergency card, or it could be an emergency message sent to all emergency contacts.

Clayton, who was hired at the beginning of the school year, already has made several improvements to the district’s communications system.

“First I had to understand what kind of system we had in place,” Clayton said. “I started asking questions about what systems we use in certain situations.

“What I heard was … a lot of times parents aren’t good at keeping their emergency contact info updated.”

After determining that SchoolMessenger was the best tool to use, Clayton designed the district’s first emergency communications drill, with most schools operating the drill during their “safety weeks,” when students practice how to respond to everything from a fire to a lockdown.

For the emergency communication drill, Clayton said the purpose was to determine how parents were receiving the communication.

She discovered that although SchoolMessenger has potential as a valuable tool to keep parents informed, it needed a few tweaks.

“A couple of things happened that led me to make changes,” Clayton said.

“When (the district) sent a general message, only (one parent) was getting info. So … I changed the universal settings of the system so it will go to at least two emails.”

Clayton also discovered that a texting option for the messenger hadn’t been enabled yet, and that parents who had calls translated into Spanish were having trouble receiving messages.

The drill also allowed the district to see which families weren’t getting the notifications at all.

“It runs reports, so if a principal sends a message out to their entire school, they can see there are 15 families where the email bounced back,” Clayton said.

While these problems required only small fixes to the system, the drill let Clayton and the district work out the kinks now instead of during an actual emergency.

“(Practicing) helps you respond,” said Pioneer Elementary School Principal Matt Duffy, whose school recently performed the safety drill.

“During the crises oftentimes your stress level goes up,” he added, noting that drills allowed both the senders and the receivers to go through the process of responding to an emergency.

The Pioneer drill informed Duffy that some families were only receiving notifications on their home phone, or that only one parent received a message on their cell phone.

If the drill had not taken place, “we would have used SchoolMessenger,” Duffy explained, “but we would have found out (the problems) during the crisis.”

The improved response system was implemented in part due to an incident that took place nearly two years ago.

In February of 2013, Davis High School was placed on lockdown along with three other schools when students reported a man with a weapon (later determined to be a BB gun) near the parking lot of the Stephens Branch Library on 14th Street.

Laura Juanitas, director of student support services for the school district, noted that there were some problems with the way the district handled the crisis.

“We debriefed as a district with the Davis Police Department and found that some of our communication between sites was not as clear as it could be since this lockdown involved the lockdown of multiple sites,” Juanitas said.

“In part, information that we learned led to our desire to have an emergency communication drill where we can alert parents, and in the case of DSIS (Davis School for Independent Study) students, to the fact that a drill is in progress.”

Added Clayton, “It’s important to learn from those mistakes. In some cases, different departments weren’t notified.

“One of the things that’s really challenging is that when there’s a void of info, it’s often filled with rumors; anyone can post something on Facebook,” she noted.

To clear up any confusion, the district launched its own Facebook page this year to accompany its website.

“(During an emergency), we would also post updates on the website as well as the district Facebook page,” Clayton said.

She believes the new drill will reassure parents that the district takes safety seriously.

“I think that it’s made people more confident that there’s a process in place,” she said.

She also thinks the drill has been highly effective in preparing the school sites and the district office for an emergency.

“It’s always easier when you practice, and when you use systems like this,” Clayton said. “I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from schools that have done it.”

“District learns from bomb threat incident”

(Published in the Jan. 29, 2015 issue of The Davis Enterprise and online)

About: Months after the SchoolMessenger story, I was asked to attend a school board meeting–something I’d never done before–and cover the debriefing after a bomb threat. My familiarity with Maria Clayton, Laura Juanitas and the SchoolMessenger system proved invaluable.  

When a caller threatened North Davis Elementary School with a bomb on Thursday, Jan. 15, school and district response was immediate.

“We had students evacuated within 20 minutes of the call coming in,” Laura Juanitas, director of student support services, told the school board a week after the event.

“The safety officer and the school resource officer for the district were on the scene. … I was there within a few minutes,” Juanitas added.

At the school board meeting, Juanitas, Superintendent Winfred Roberson, Associate Superintendent Matt Best and Public Information Officer Maria Clayton had the chance to debrief trustees on the incident.

Juanitas emphasized the speed at which the elementary students were evacuated, “and not only evacuated to the blacktop, which is their first evacuation site, but actually walking to Rainbow City Park and the Arts Center, which was their secondary site.”

When it was determined that the evacuation and subsequent search of the school for a possible bomb would run well through lunch, Student Nutritional Services responded quickly.

“I made one call to them, and they, within minutes, were mobilizing enough food to feed the entire school and staff, and they took care of that,” Juanitas noted.

Earlier district preparation paid off, as the new SchoolMessenger emergency response system tested and updated by Clayton earlier this year was used during the incident.

Clayton summarized the emergency response drill performed by schools earlier this year.

“The purpose of these drills was really threefold; the first being that we really wanted to educate parents in the school community to know what an emergency broadcast would look like if one were to come to them,” Clayton said.

“The second reason for these drills was to identify where we may have missing emergency information for students, and then be able to resolve that.

“Lastly, (the drills were) really just to raise awareness within the community about what the schools are doing to take safety seriously,” she continued.

“We found that we got really good feedback from the sites, from parents, that they appreciated it,” Clayton told the school board. “We made some fine-tuning tweaks to the system. Most of those happened in the fall and since then we’ve had two occasions where actual emergencies have happened and I think they’ve gone quite smoothly as far as using the system.”

The district delegation also touted their improved ability to reach out to parents, students and other members of the community through several means, which include SchoolMessenger notifications, the district’s website and Facebook.

Of course, when dealing with the response to an emergency, there is always room to improve.

“We will learn from this event and do even better,” Clayton told The Enterprise. “As with any incident, we are reviewing our protocols and processing feedback from staff and our community to ensure we maintain the highest standards of safety at our school campuses.”

The district officers identified some of the areas that needed improvement.

These included the need for emergency notification of substitute teachers, better coordination with the Davis Police Department and communication with places like the Davis Arts Center near evacuation sites.

“There was definitely some confusion about kindergarten release and we’ll make sure those glitches are solved,” Juanitas explained.

“There was some concern that the police were certainly at North Davis Elementary, but they weren’t over at the evacuation site, and we’re conversing with the police on that,” she added.
 Juanitas also addressed the need for better communication with personnel at evacuation sites.

“Even though our children weren’t in the Arts Center, that was the word that was going out, and so there were parents calling the Arts Center, so we need to improve some of that communication,” she said.

Clayton tackled the issue of notifying substitutes, who don’t have a district email that staff members used to access information about the emergency.

“All staff (including substitutes) were notified over the PA that there was a situation with instructions on how to get information necessary to proceed. … This is a learning environment and we are studying how the event unfolded at (North Davis and Davis High School, which was placed on alert) to review our practices and procedures,” she told The Enterprise.

School board members questioned the district officers on various facts regarding the bomb threat and response, but overall were complimentary on the district’s handling of the emergency.

“I’m just really grateful, relieved, proud, that our district has made this our number one priority,” board member Barbara Archer said.

“And Winfred says this all the time, that safety is our number one priority for our students. … I really thank you for putting in the proactive effort, because that’s what we really need to do.”

“UPDATE: Elementary school evacuation affects Davis High”

(Published on on Jan. 15, 2015)

About: My editor-in-chief and I were able to cover the bomb threat incident from the field, and ensured we included verifiable facts from reliable sources. We reacted quickly, getting a story up at lunchtime less than an hour after the bomb threat occurred.

Davis police blocked 14th St. starting from F St. to the Veterans Memorial Center. DHS students were instructed to head west after leaving the Veterans Memorial parking lot. Photo by Ashley Han

Davis police blocked 14th St. starting from F St. to the Veterans Memorial Center. DHS students were instructed to head west after leaving the Veterans Memorial parking lot. (Photo: A. Han)