FORT WAYNE, Ind. (WANE) — Northwest Allen County Schools (NACS) sent a letter to parents to address new protocols for school board meetings after the district says a radio interview by an Allen County Sheriff’s deputy caused confusion.
In Thursday morning’s interview on WOWO 1190AM, Chief Deputy Troy Hershberger said the Allen County Sheriff’s Department never told NACS to make changes to their school board meeting protocol or to address safety concerns.
NACS Superintendent Chris Himsel agreed that the sheriff’s department did not make specific recommendations. However, he points to an email from officers who said they would no longer provide security if board meetings remained contentious.
The district paused public comment in September after board meeting crowds grew increasingly raucous over masks and mask mandates. Earlier this week, the board extended the mask mandate through the end of the semester.
In an exclusive interview with WANE 15, Himsel said an officer with the department reached out via email to communicate safety concerns for the board and attendees. Himsel said audience members were cursing, name-calling and using “other types of language that was inappropriate.”
“We had some situations where the allocated police department members felt the need to create a perimeter around the stage so that people did not go up on the stage,” Himsel explained.
A second email on Sept. 17 informed the district that the school resource officers, who are also members of the sheriff’s department, would no longer work security for the board “as long as the current format and atmosphere” continued.
Last month, the department confirmed in an email to WANE 15 that school resource officers had expressed concerns and advised NACS that something needed to be done as the meetings became increasingly heated. The department clarified they did not advise the school on which specific actions to take to increase safety.
WANE 15 has reached out to the Allen County Sheriff’s Department and Hershberger for additional comment on Friday but hasn’t heard back.
Although right now there is no public comment or meetings with an in-person audience, Himsel said the goal is to get back to normal.
“Our goal is to get back to having our board meetings the way we normally have them have public comment and so forth,” Himsel said. “We’re in the process of reviewing our procedures and trying to make sure that we provide a safe environment not only for those participating in the meeting but for all the patrons who choose to come to the meetings.”
Himsel said most district feedback has been positive despite a vocal group of parents who are against masking.
“We also have a group of patrons who would like for us to have even more restrictions than we have and we’ve got a group of people who would like for us to have less restrictions than we have. We’ve got perspectives on both ends of that spectrum and what we’re trying to do is listen to all those things but also do something that’s practical for our students.”
For Himsel, the goal is to keep as many students in the classroom as possible.
“We’ve listened to the Allen County Department of Health. We’ve listened to the Indiana Department of Health. We’ve sought guidance from the CDC and the American Academy of Pediatrics and we’ve also spoken directly with healthcare workers at Parkview, Lutheran and IU Health to help us understand what those issues are. We try to sort that out and come up with the best solution possible,” Himsel said. “At the end of the day, the current rules that we need to follow indicate that if we are universal masking, there is no quarantine in any of the close contacts.”
According to Himsel, in the last two weeks with the district being fully masked, 14 students have been quarantined. If there were not a blanket mask mandate, he said they would have had to quarantine more than 300 students.
The rules Himsel referenced are from Sept. 3, when the Indiana Department of Health updated their student quarantine guidance, which says that if everyone is masked, close contacts of those with COVID-19 must monitor their systems for 14 days but do not need to quarantine unless symptoms develop.
Under those same rules, if masks were optional and some people were unmasked and unvaccinated, close contacts within six feet must quarantine for 10-14 days. That quarantine can end early if they are able to show a negative COVID-19 test on days 5, 6, or 7 of quarantine.
The letter to parents also addresses concerns brought to the district about Social-Emotional Learning, also known as SEL. Himsel said in the letter that SEL is something the district has taught for years and will continue to teach in the future because it helps students with their personal growth as well as their intellectual growth.
“It’s also about helping kids reduce their anxiety, about helping them develop positive peer relationships, how to resolve conflict,” Himsel said. “It’s also about taking care of some of the legal requirements that we have, in terms of taking steps to reduce alcohol and drug use, as well as suicide prevention at school.”
According to the letter, social-emotional learning addresses several skills identified in the Indiana Employability Skills Standard, which is required to be taught to Indiana students in grades kindergarten through 12th grade.
“It complements what we do on an academic basis but it’s those things that we’ve all been taught: work hard, get along with others, treat people right,” Himsel said. “It’s all those kinds of things that makes up what SEL is.”
Himsel said parents typically understand when social-emotional learning is explained to them, but that using “professional jargon” like SEL has caused some confusion. The solution, he said, is more communication.
“We need to use less of our professional jargon and we need to explain more about what we’re doing,” Himsel said. “Sometimes that’s hard because we live in the educator’s world and we’re used to reading our educational journals, talking to other educators.”
He encourages parents to reach out to their student’s schools or teachers if they have any concerns about what students are learning in the classroom.
“Usually we can clear those kinds of things up, but in those rare cases where we’ve got someone who made a mistake, bringing that to the principal’s attention allows them to intervene and to make that correction,” Himsel said. “We’re all human, we’re all going to have good days and bad days.”