Last semester, Fremont Public Schools dealt with several threat-related incidents that forced it to assess its safety needs.
In October, a personal altercation between students was misconstrued as a threat against Fremont Middle School, triggering a law enforcement response. And in November, a 14-year-old student was charged with terroristic threats, after he entered Fremont High School with a BB gun, triggering a two-hour lockdown.
Superintendent Mark Shepard said the school district has always had a strong relationship with the Fremont Police Department. But he added that the incidents, along with incidents of students involved in the court system, revealed a need for more coordination. And not just with law enforcement, but with all the other agencies that could be involved in a threat response, like the local court or probation system.
“It really heightened our awareness of the fact that we need to create a better way of working inter-agency wise,” Shepard said.
Those agencies have since assembled a fledgling, first-of-its-kind task force that hopes to improve school safety and streamline communication, particularly with regard to threat responses. Shepard said he believes it’s the first task force of this magnitude in the state of Nebraska.
The task force consists of a wide swathe of stakeholders: Fremont Public Schools, Archbishop Bergan, Trinity Lutheran, the Fremont Police Department, the Dodge County Sheriff’s Department, the Dodge County Attorney’s Office, Dodge County Court Judge Kenneth Vampola, the District Six Probation Office and the Nebraska Mediation Center.
“We’ve always had a really good relationship with our Fremont Police Department and I think what this allows us to do is strengthen our relationships with the other agencies as well,” Shepard said. “I think the other thing long term is to really put in place some really strong protocols, that we all know what our roles are in the case of a variety of different circumstances.”
Representatives from each agency will meet once every month or two, with potentially smaller groups meeting more frequently.
The group is still new, and its goals are broad, but at the meetings, they hope to improve safety protocols and responses to threats against the school; develop more preventative measures; and most importantly, open up lines of communication between groups that occasionally overlap but rarely coordinate their efforts.
“When we were dealing with some of the issues last semester, oftentimes we were talking with someone on the other end of the phone who we did not have any type of relationship with,” Shepard said.
“What this task force has allowed us to do is kind of allow us to build those relationships between the agencies and have some really good conversations about how we work with students and how we keep our buildings and our school district safe,” he said.
The task force has already met three times. According to Shepard, early discussions have included, among other things, talks on information sharing — how the court system and schools can communicate while still adhering to federal privacy laws.
Vampola sees opportunity for the court system to collaborate with the probation and mediation offices to better deal with students who have contributed to safety incidents at school.
While the initial response to a threat is managed by the school district and law enforcement, the court manages detention and risk assessment in the aftermath. Handling those cases appropriately could help ensure that those threats don’t happen again, Vampola said.
“The court system comes in, and I could see mediation playing a significant role, because there’s something wrong in the relationship between the student and the school,” Vampola said. “And the court can address that relationship, but I think mediation can also help, working with probation.”
Vampola also hopes the task force will take a look at how it can prevent the spread of false information during a potential incident — that problem arose during the lockdown, when social media posts included incorrect information about the situation.
Shepard also noted that the task force would hope to develop more preventative strategies as well. That could include identifying areas where there’s a need for more training, and potentially coordinating training between agencies.
The probation office could also play a role in those preventative measures, said Jesse Williams, juvenile justice resource supervisor for probation.
As part of the task force, probation is working to develop ways that it could potentially get into the schools more frequently to work with kids who are in the probation system and who may be displaying concerning behavior.
“I think it will help down the road,” Williams said. “Right now it’s kind of in its infancy, but I think it’s great to have law enforcement, the schools, probation, the courts, everybody sitting at the table so we can all talk about, hey this is what we’re seeing, and moving forward, this is what we can do.”
Fremont Police Chief Jeff Elliott was not available for comment, and Dodge County Sheriff Steve Hespen did not return a request for comment.
Shepard noted they are hoping to involve the Jefferson House and Methodist Fremont Health in the discussions as well.
He noted that Fremont Public Schools has recently updated its safety protocols, prior to the formation of the task force, with the hiring of new security coordinator Kevin Kavan. Those protocols were in place at the time of the lockdown incident.