Episode 419: Leadership Series: School Safety
Support learning by supporting school safety! Join us in conversation with Dr. Grant Rivera and Chuck Gardner of Marietta City Schools to learn more.
Support learning by supporting school safety! Join us in conversation with Dr. Grant Rivera and Chuck Gardner of Marietta City Schools to learn more.
Ashley Mengwasser: Good day. Thank you for joining us for Classroom Conversations, the platform for Georgia's teachers. The Classroom Conversations podcast series is presented by the Georgia Department of Education and Georgia Public Broadcasting. I'm your host, Ashley Mengwasser. Hello. We have another topic from our leadership series for you. Let's see if I can tease this one with an acronym. Take the first letter of each of my longer words here. How about this? Supporting academia by fortifying everyone's trust yearly. That was a stretch, but we're talking S-A-F-E-T-Y, safety in Georgia Schools as a crucial basis for successful learning. And we've got it on lock. School safety can't be taken for granted, but it can be created by grant. And Chuck, we have a super guest lineup today, our very first episode with the superintendent. My guests are head honchos of Marietta City Schools, Dr. Grant Rivera as Marietta City School superintendent. And Chuck Gardner is Chief Operations Officer. Grant and Chuck have known each other through the education profession for about 18 years now. You'll get that story in just a moment, but they're here today because of their career long leadership legacy as former principals that has shaped and secured several schools here in Georgia. If you do the math, thousands of lives are touched by these two gentlemen daily. Welcome to the podcast, Grant and Chuck. How are you guys?
Dr. Grant Rivera: We're doing great. Honored to be with you. Thank you.
Ashley Mengwasser: Good, Good.
Chuck Gardner: Glad to be here.
Ashley Mengwasser: Yes, I love it. Their suits are impeccable. You guys, I wish you could see, you'll have to watch the video version of this. To continue the math that I just mentioned, how many schools and students do you serve in Marietta City Schools?
Dr. Grant Rivera: Yeah, so in Marietta City Schools we have 12 schools, and we serve just under 9,000 kids.
Ashley Mengwasser: 9,000 kids. All right. And I bet you recognize a large portion of them because you spend so much time with schools, with the people in those schools. How'd you get into schools in the first place? Where did your education story begin, Grant as superintendent?
Dr. Grant Rivera: Yeah, so I started my career as a special education teacher. And it was interesting because when I did my first internship though, I would eventually go into special education. I actually always wanted to be a high school principal. And that started when I did my student teaching. And I had the opportunity to walk through a high school and see a high school principal, high fiving and hugging and laughing with kids about everything from prom to getting their driver's license to their college admission letters. And it was just amazing for me to see how someone could be such an influential and hopefully positive influence on so many kids across a large school campus. And that really brought me into education.
Ashley Mengwasser: You saw the spark?
Dr. Grant Rivera: I was inspired.
Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. He didn't look back. What's your story, Chuck?
Chuck Gardner: So, I started out as a middle school band director, believe it or not.
Ashley Mengwasser: I love it.
Chuck Gardner: So, I was a big trumpet player in high school and went to Florida State, studied music, decided I wasn't going to make a living as a trumpet player, so -
Ashley Mengwasser: Why not?
Chuck Gardner: I guess I wasn't as good as I thought I was. But went back, came home, got a job teaching, never really thought about administration until I was at a school, was tasked to be on a school improvement team, and then started to learn the work of school improvement. Kind of fell in love with that. And then went back to graduate school. Got my degree administration. At the time Grant was actually the principal of the high school that my middle school where I was teaching fed. So I reached out to him, didn't know the guy from Adam. I was like, I'll send this guy an email. He'll probably never return it, but let's see if I can help him solve some problems at South Cobb and spend some time with him and learned from him. And I did. And he actually answered it. We did lunch. He hired me a little later on for my first opportunity at Campbell High School. We parted ways and we were principals together for a short period of time in Fulton. And the rest is history. And then this is year five now that I just started in Marietta as COO with him. So it's been a ride.
Ashley Mengwasser: Do you guys get to interact with each other pretty much every day in your roles?
Dr. Grant Rivera: Yes, every day.
Ashley Mengwasser: In what way do you cross paths?
Dr. Grant Rivera: Well, it's interesting sometimes because we have an 18-year history and sometimes it's about personal stuff and checking in about counting calories of the meals we eat to the dogs, to everything else. But quite honestly, that's the nature of the job between a superintendent and a COO. We are in the weeds of everything.
Ashley Mengwasser: In the weeds.
Dr. Grant Rivera: So, if we're not talking about family and other personal things, we're talking about just keeping the district running seamlessly for kids and staff. So it's every day.
Ashley Mengwasser: What is a surprising joy in your job, Chuck, would you say as COO?
Chuck Gardner: Part of my responsibilities is construction. What's really neat is to actually a playground. We put in, I think six or seven playgrounds since I've been in this role. And when you put the playground in and then you get to drive by the first day that the kids are on it and just kind of watch them run out and see the joy on their face and know that you have hand in that happening. It wasn't something I really expected as a former high school principal, that really wasn't if you'd have told me five years ago-
Ashley Mengwasser: Playgrounds.
Chuck Gardner: But playgrounds would be. But it's just something about seeing the joy on a kid's face and you're like, that's why we do what we do. And it's not just me, but my maintenance team. They love to go out there and quietly watch too. And it kind of recharges our batteries to see that.
Ashley Mengwasser: Brings it full circle while you're really doing your job. Do you have a proudest achievement in your job so far?
Dr. Grant Rivera: I'll go there. For us in Marietta, we have recently been on this in the last three years on this journey around literacy. And for me personally and professionally, it's been the highlight of my entire career, which is the idea that we can help students who may have struggled to read for whatever the reason, whether it's a reading comprehension deficit like dyslexia or dysgraphia or it's just a child who has not yet learned to read and is in first, second, third grade. For me, one of our proudest accomplishments is increasing the literacy rates at Marietta and seeing how that has an impact across every aspect of schools and learning. It isn't just about whether or not a kid can read it actually helps their engagement, it helps their behavior, it helps their confidence, it helps their families lean in more. And it has been for us and for me personally, one of the most exciting things in my career.
Ashley Mengwasser: We've talked about literacy a ton in season four of Classroom Conversations, and it's been one of my favorite things to talk about. Some of my favorite episodes are about two things that you guys both like literacy and leadership, and it's cool when those come together in schools. Guys, I want to transition into our topic of school safety. What have been the, I would say, best guiding words you've heard on the subject of school safety that have really been your beacon on this path? You first Chuck.
Chuck Gardner: I would say really the phrase that it's everybody's responsibility. So you don't get to delegate safety. So it's not the principal's responsibility, it's not the teacher's responsibility, it's not the custodians, it's not the superintendent. It's everybody's responsibility.
Ashley Mengwasser: It starts with me, us.
Chuck Gardner: 100%. So that kind of personal responsibility and really what can I do to make this place safer. Getting everybody to buy into that I think is kind of a guiding principle that I leverage.
Ashley Mengwasser: Grant?
Dr. Grant Rivera: For me and I really have learned to evolve as a leader in this, especially in today's climate. But you cannot afford to underreact when it comes to student safety and staff safety. You have to overreact. And I think one of the cautions you have, especially as you've been in this business in a long time, is that sometimes you could become numb to the bomb threats, the shooting threats, especially in times such as now. And yet the reality is it's still somebody's child. And to remind yourself that you always have to overreact. And I believe if families know and staff know that you will overreact to school safety, they will trust you even more in times of doubt. So for me, you can't afford to underreact. You can only overreact.
Ashley Mengwasser: That's a powerful strategy. I can see why it worked. Both of your jobs are so crucial to your systems, so skills-based, I wouldn't pretend to understand the complexity of what you do, even though I do appreciate your profound capacity for students. You've heard of a job swap before. What if I took on your jobs for a day, gentlemen? What do you think? Sort of a substitute superintendent and COO, what pointers would you give me to do your jobs well? What if I were superintendent for a day, Grant?
Dr. Grant Rivera: Yeah. So if you were superintendent for the day, right? What's the latest thing sitting on my desk? I would say just-
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Dr. Grant Rivera: ... superintendent for the day, right? What's the latest thing sitting on my desk? I would say just broadly, it's a reminder that we have 1,400 staff in our district.
Ashley Mengwasser: Right. Yes.
Dr. Grant Rivera: Every one of them matter, and they need to be felt as if each person feels valued and respected. We have just under 9,000 kids. We have families who are connected. Every one of them has to feel like what matters to them is important to me. And we can never be too busy. We can never be too distracted. And yet, a glimpse into my day is trying to make sure we honor every one of the stakeholders with whom we come in contact. Because the point at which we make them feel as if they're not important is the point at which they feel they don't have my time and respect, and then I lose their trust.
Ashley Mengwasser: That's so good. It's accessibility and openness and relationships. That takes a lot of time, too. Chuck, job swap. I'm COO for a day. What the heck do I do?
Chuck Gardner: Yeah. Well, the great news is I've got great people that are content experts. So really, the way my role is so kind of multifaceted, it's really about kind of giving them the space to do what they do best, whether it's the IT director or the maintenance director, and supporting them and bouncing things off with them and just kind of clearing the way and the barriers that might be in their way. We talk about being world-class in operations. That's kind of our mantra. We want to provide world-class service to schools. So it's like, what's in your way to providing world-class service to our schools so that our kids ultimately get what they want? Because that's our customers. I mean, that's really what you're doing every day is just kind of putting out fires for other people so that they can do what they're really great at.
Ashley Mengwasser: Right. Affording trust and problem solving. That's what I heard there. Well, trust me, they give both of your jobs back to you at the end of the day. So, thanks for sharing that. Let's transition to school safety in particular in Georgia schools. To some, this may feel like a generic term. It's so broad and it has so many layers. What factors are we actually referring to when we say the term school safety?
Dr. Grant Rivera: So let me speak broadly for a moment. I think that when you think about school safety, it's really how do we make sure that students and staff have the opportunity to be in a place where they can learn free of distraction and feel safe? So in some ways, it's around the operational dynamics. And school safety, to me, goes to everything from how we secure doors, how we check for visitors. How do we make it a safe space for children? But it isn't just about the physical plan and the structure, it's also about the way in which the kids feel and their social emotional wellbeing and how that then translates into behavior that also could impact safety. So for me, it's so nuanced and the reality is we have to have our finger on the pulse of all of it. And again, I go back to what I referenced earlier. Things are different now.
Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.
Dr. Grant Rivera: It might've been once a year that I got a bomb threat and we had to make a decision on whether we took 2,000 kids out in the parking lot. That's not the case now. That was pre-social media. That was pre some of the social emotional dynamics and some of the hurting that we're seeing. And for us now, it's really having to navigate through the nuance of everything is accelerated on social media. Everything is potentially exaggerated on social media. Again, if you're going to overreact and not under react, you're over-communicating with your community about the things that we know that maybe previously we never had to share. All of that layers into such a nuanced dynamic around school safety where we have to over communicate, we have to overreact, and we have to look at every single variable from the facility, to the child, to the staff, and just make sure that we are monitoring all of it. And when it doesn't feel right or doesn't look right, we overreact.
Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, we're talking, like you said, operational practices. Chuck can tell us some about that. We're talking about preventing harassment, bullying, keeping drugs out of the schools. Anything else just generally topically that you have to look at every day?
Dr. Grant Rivera: I mean, you mentioned a list. I mean, let's add cell phones to it while we're at it.
Ashley Mengwasser: Oh my gosh.
Dr. Grant Rivera: It's this dynamic that, especially because of school safety, families at earlier and earlier ages want their children to have a phone in case I have to reach my kid in the event of an emergency, right?
Ashley Mengwasser: Right.
Dr. Grant Rivera: And yet, that phone sometimes contributes exactly these variables around their social emotional wellbeing-
Ashley Mengwasser: Distractedness.
Dr. Grant Rivera: ... social media, the distractedness, the kids who... I mean, it's a Google picture of a gun in a Nike bag that you could pull off any Google search. It gets circulated among hundreds of kids in minutes.
Ashley Mengwasser: Like fire.
Dr. Grant Rivera: Like fire. And then how you manage that. It's all of it. And I think that there are different dynamics today than when I started my career 25 years ago, and we have to be responsive to that because those are real in the eyes of kids and families and staff as well.
Yeah. That's why you have to overreact. All right, Chuck. School safety.
Chuck Gardner: I think the driving factor is the little things, if they're not dealt with, they become the big things. To Grant's point, we've got to pay attention to all of those little indicators that are happening. But it's all kinds of operational things. I mean, one of the biggest things we've done, actually, it'll shock you. It's so simple. But after Uvalde, there was some concern about doors being propped. Our high school has got 170 something doors on the campus.
Ashley Mengwasser: Oh my gosh.
Chuck Gardner: So just the fact that a door doesn't close all the way because mechanically something's wrong could be a concern because then somebody could come around the backside of a building, right? So just getting little stickers made with the school logos on them, "Always locked, never propped." Simple stuff like that just reminds people to do what they know that they should do if they think about it.
Ashley Mengwasser: But they get a reminder.
Chuck Gardner: But every time they close that door, they're thinking about it. You'd be amazed at how much leverage we've gotten off just that small little change. There's little things like that. There's bigger conversations around all kinds of different strategies. But I think at the end of the day, people always try to sell you the latest, greatest thing when it comes to school safety. But at the end of the day, you're trying to layer a lot of different things on top of each other to kind of close as many gaps as possible. There's no one perfect solution. It's just how many things can we layer on top of each other to make sure they kind of work in concert to provide the safest environment that we can while still providing a learning environment that we want our kids to go to. I mean, we could not let kids go outside for recess, but is that the type of school that any of us want to send our kids to?
Ashley Mengwasser: True. Good point. So doing the small things right and building upon that. And what a catchy slogan. That's really cool. When you guys were principals a few years ago, what was your first step then to improving campus safety and security?
Chuck Gardner: My first thing was to figure out, to what degree does everybody feel like it's my responsibility? And I alluded to that earlier because at the end of the day, I can implement any program, I can put any measure in place. But what I've got to figure out really quickly is does every custodian know that if they see somebody that's not supposed to be in that building, that it's their responsibility to say something and they knew exactly what to do? Assessing that first and then figuring out, how do I build that culture first amongst the staff, but also the students? If you've got 2,000 students walking around a high school, that's 2,000 sets of eyes that can identify if something is off. We always say to kids, "If you see something, say something."
Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.
Chuck Gardner: Right? And it really is that simple. And most of the things that we catch when they are small before it turns into a large thing, it comes as a result of exactly that. So just leveraging all the eyes that you got in the building and making sure that nobody's walking past a propped door or somebody in the building that they don't recognize and thinking, "That's not my job."
Ashley Mengwasser: What was your first step, Grant?
Dr. Grant Rivera: Yeah, I think building upon what Chuck said, for me, what was so important was having conversations with teachers and students, with staff and students. What I would say to them candidly is, "Where do you feel safe? Where do you not feel safe, and how can we do better?" So what you're doing is you're building upon this efficacy and empowerment that Chuck talked about, but you're also creating two-way communication. Listen, I can sit in a principal's office, I can sit in a superintendent's office. It actually doesn't matter how I feel. It matters how the child feels as they walk through a hallway into a classroom, into a restroom, out at buses, football field later at night. So asking kids and asking staff those very basic questions gives you feedback, then allows you to inform the next decision, and to Chuck's point, the layered approach that you might take.
Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. Feedback was a big part of your solution. Is that how you established a culture of safety in your schools back then? What other things did you do?
Dr. Grant Rivera: Yeah. Absolutely. I mean, certainly the feedback loop was important to me. Operationalizing those layered and nuanced dynamics. So whether it's around a sticker on a door, whether it's around everybody having a badge, putting things in place, so that way staff knew that we were looking at a multifaceted approach and students knew that. So for me, it was about a comprehensive conversation around safety. Every single person who walks in a door, or for that matter, every single situation who passes through Marietta City Schools has to know that their safety is my number one priority. I think it's interesting because how often are leaders saying, I mean, a lot of times we'll say literacy and we'll say learning and we'll say ... No, no, no, no, no. Make no mistake about it. The number one priority is student and staff and staff safety at Marietta. And we have to say that over-
Ashley Mengwasser: Over and over again.
Dr. Grant Rivera: ... and over and over again.
Chuck Gardner: Yeah. I think one thing I'll add is relationships. At the end of the day, the relationship that the teacher has with the kids, that the administrator has with the teachers and the kids, and even the resource officers, if they've got that relationship with the kids where they're going to speak, and you have that culture, that's really, really important. And at the end of the day, if they'll talk to you, they'll tell you the things that you need to know to keep them safe.
Dr. Grant Rivera: And Ashley, I'll build on that and offer one other thought. I'm a special ed teacher, turned principal, turned superintendent. I am not a police officer. I am not a safety and security expert. So, the other thing that I think is critically important as you try to maintain the confidence of your staff and your families is not only the feedback and the layered approaches, but it's also being honest with them about bringing in experts who can advise you. Some of the most valuable feedback I got as a principal was when we asked security experts, candidly it was GEMA-
Ashley Mengwasser: Georgia Emergency ...
Dr. Grant Rivera: ... Georgia Emergency Management Agency to come in and I said, "Hey, you come and walk this building and find everything you can find." And we would sit down and I thought to myself, I had walked by that corridor 100 times, 1,000 times ...
Ashley Mengwasser: And never saw it that way.
Dr. Grant Rivera: ... and I never saw what they saw. And that's because they have a different perspective, they've been trained differently. And I think we have to acknowledge that while we as educators have the very best intentions for the people we serve, we also aren't experts. So, the degree to which you as a leader can lean on experts who want to be in our schools to make them safer, is a critical resource that in turn gets you more and more trust from your staff and your community.
Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah. What cultivated partnerships made that difference in the community? Talk to me about some more of those. GEMA is a great one. Were there others along the way in your principalship?
Chuck Gardner: Yeah, I mean, I think your local jurisdiction, your police is so important, right? In Fulton, it was a little different. They had their own school police department when I was a principal there, so that was different. In Marietta, we use Marietta City School or Marietta City Schools uses Marietta City police officers. And so we have an agreement and they're actually what we call SROs, or school resource officers. But that relationship in Marietta really is 100% the key. And I think it was the same in Fulton, that was one of the most important ones, was that relationship between the principal and that officer. And that understanding of sometimes I need you to be a mentor, and sometimes I need you to talk to kids, and sometimes I need you to be a cop. And knowing and knowing when to do what and being on the same page with that really, really is important.
Dr. Grant Rivera: And I'll say, think about it for a moment. As leaders, we can't be expected to know everything. If I wanted to move the literacy needle, I would put the smartest people in the room who knew literacy. I would ask the right questions and I would go. Literally in Marietta City schools, we have the opportunity to have a federal gang officer, a gentleman who works with the FBI who specializes in gangs, someone who works and who works with Marietta Police Department, who also specializes in facility safety and security. Someone else who has an expertise in weapons and otherwise, not because we necessarily have a specific problem in Marietta, but that is the expertise-
Ashley Mengwasser: That's at the table.
Dr. Grant Rivera: ... that they bring Marietta Police Department. And we literally, again, a parallel to literacy, sit around the room and say, "All right, we are worried about this, or we think about this, or we've had questions about this, or we have feedback about that." And they will weigh in. Can you imagine for a moment sitting around the table with some of these cities, and I would argue states, regions leading experts-
Ashley Mengwasser: Experts.
Dr. Grant Rivera: ... in this field? Let me tell you something. I have a second and fifth grader who walk the halls of Marietta City schools. I trust those men and women unconditionally to guide us and fill in the gaps where we as educators don't have. And I think that is a critical resource. I have never once in my travels ever met a law enforcement officer who didn't want to lean in and support our youngest people walk in our schools. And I think that's an incredible partnership that oftentimes goes underutilized. Listen, I don't care if your district has your own police department. I don't care if you partner with local jurisdiction. Everybody can come together to make school safer. And I think that's a powerful partnership that gives our community more and more confidence just to send their kids to school every day.
Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. This feels like a call to action for all of our school systems listening to develop their own school safety think tank. To have that conversation, to have that physical table with the leading experts around it, and just like we do with literacy and some of the other topics in our schools. Chuck, you mentioned this earlier, your school resource officer, how did you work with them regarding prevention?
Chuck Gardner: I mean, we talked every day. So they were in my admin meetings when I was a principal, so I was constantly engaging them on the front end, like, "Hey, what do you see? What do we need to be doing?" They were helping me think through situations, like what should we do in this situation? So I mean, it was just a continual conversation.
Ashley Mengwasser: Tandems, yeah.
Chuck Gardner: In the same way I would talk to an assistant principal about what should we do around curriculum in a professional learning community? I'm going to be talking to that police officer about, "What do you see from your lens?" And then there were also school safety folks that worked for the district. GEMA, utilized GEMA as well. And we've utilized GEMA in Marietta in this role. So yeah, it's a constant conversation. And really what I always wanted was them to tell me what they see. I didn't want to ask the questions. I wanted them coming to me with their thoughts and asking me the questions. Because to Grant's point, you're the expert. I can talk to you about teaching and learning. I need you to tell me what it is that I'm not seeing, like where-
Ashley Mengwasser: For safety and security.
Chuck Gardner: ... are our blind spots for safety and security.
Ashley Mengwasser: So, you had a very close relationship, it sounds like. Could you text them late at night like you do Grant?
Chuck Gardner: Yeah, I did. And I do. In Marietta, I was on the phone with one of our officers on the way over here and-
Ashley Mengwasser: Really?
Chuck Gardner: ... was on with them at 9:30 last night. I mean, when I say-
Ashley Mengwasser: Constant.
Chuck Gardner: ... it is a constant collaboration. And we have just incredible, I can't say enough about the men and women of Marietta's police department. I mean, I cannot say enough about them. They are just excellent at what they do and they've been just such a valued partner to us.
Dr. Grant Rivera: And Ashley, I might just build upon this, where we're talking so much about safety and security, the big stuff, let me just go one step further and talk about the Marietta Police Department and our partnership. It isn't just about the big stuff. In fact, one of our elementary SROs, his name is Officer Hill, five years ago, he started a conversation about wanting to get a crisis response dog.
Ashley Mengwasser: What?
Dr. Grant Rivera: In Marietta, we have a black lab named Barney. And Barney is not sniffing bombs. Barney is not sniffing drugs. Barney's sole responsibility is to deescalate a child.
Ashley Mengwasser: In emotional crisis?
Dr. Grant Rivera: Exactly.
Ashley Mengwasser: I see.
Dr. Grant Rivera: And I have seen Barney sitting on a couch with a kindergartner the first week of school, who was afraid to get out of the car to walk in the building. I have seen Barney sit with a staff member when a spouse passed. So, for us the partnership with Marietta Police Department, and I think the opportunities that exist for other districts across the state, is to go beyond some of the traditional conversations. For us, that has led us to not only more safety and better procedures, but it's also left us with this idea of how do we leverage a caring adult, like an officer, like Officer Hill with a black lab named Barney, who help kids deescalate, help staff feel better? It's an incredible partnership. It goes beyond a lot of the traditional boundaries, we think.
Ashley Mengwasser: It's so pure of heart. I have to ask, is Tilly in any way in the running for this position in her future?
Dr. Grant Rivera: All right, so truth be told, at staff kickoff in Marietta, I stood in front of 900 people, and I joked, I brought Officer Hill and Barney out so they could be honored by our staff. And I joked that my kids were wearing me out about getting a black lab. Three weeks later, I would have a black lab, a black rescue lab. And so I blame Officer Hill and Barney. I love them both, but I've told them that they're responsible for walking the dog in the middle of the night when he gets up because it's their fault.
Ashley Mengwasser: Yeah, it's their fault. And that is definitely hard work. Well, now you're both district leaders in a very powerful way. You've transcended the roles and the responsibilities of the principalship to make a larger impact through the influence that you have now. How have you prioritized safety and security throughout a district, which is a much larger sphere of influence?
Dr. Grant Rivera: Yeah, I'll start. And as you step from school to district, several dynamics. One is that we push out quarterly to all of our staff a safety and security update. So, it isn't just about pre-planning when they get a one-hour training on fill in the blank. It's actually something we do ongoing. And Chuck can certainly speak more to this, but he and his security staff, including our officers, will meet with each staff throughout the year. So for us, it's not a moment in time. It is an ongoing conversation to create an ongoing trust that we believe contributes to better safety, security, and peace of mind. So in Marietta, it's not just about the daily text messages or the emails, it's about the ongoing interaction with staff where they see an entire team of people prioritize this for their wellbeing.
Chuck Gardner: Oftentimes with safety and security, an event happens and everybody's kind of reacts to that event. A big school shooting happens and everybody's talking about it for a couple of weeks, and unfortunately a few weeks later everybody's back to normal.
Ashley Mengwasser: Right. Status quo.
Chuck Gardner: Status quo. So what we've tried to do to kind of combat that is keep it front and center. It's part of the conversation. We're not reacting to anything like our top priority to Grant's point. We talk about being a family and caring for our staff. Well, what I tell them at the beginning of these meetings is our number one priority is to take care of you. Your family and family takes care of family, and we have to talk about some things sometimes that are uncomfortable. And then we talk about, we provide whether it's active threat training to start the year off, but then we talk about the different things that we've put in place. We give feedback. It's just a reminder, hey, if you need something, these are how alerts go out. This is what to do in this type of situation. We actually had Jima out last year to do... They were just going around trying to get into our buildings to see can they get in to our buildings.
Ashley Mengwasser: Could they do it. Yeah.
Chuck Gardner: In some cases, they were successful and some cases they weren't. But what we learned from it was we were able to, in most cases, if they were to get in, like a kid propped a door open or they followed somebody in, in almost all cases, somebody would say, "Hey, who are you?" And they were looking for badges. But what we saw was they weren't necessarily going that next step. They'd be like, "Hey, you need to go to the front office." Well, then the guy would walk down and-
Ashley Mengwasser: Not go to the front office.
Chuck Gardner: Not go to the front office. So we were like, "Well, we got to be more explicit in our training." So we took the opportunity in these quarterly meetings. So this year we're really focusing on, okay, it's great that you look for the badge, but we've got an active escort program.
Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, nice.
Chuck Gardner: And so, you're an active escort and you're not to let that person out of your site until you get them to the front. So just things like that, as they come up and as we learn trying to take those learnings and push them out to the school in kind of a systematic way where it doesn't seem like we're coming out because there was this latest school shooting and we're just checking a box, but we really care about you. And because of that, there's continuity throughout the year and we're starting to see some of these simple measures that we're putting in place really take root and make a difference.
Ashley Mengwasser: Your students feel supported in these rocky times that are wobbles nationally. They can reflect on how things are run in their school and their system and feel a greater sense of security there.
Chuck Gardner: That's our hope, for sure.
Ashley Mengwasser: That's really nice, you guys. Let's think about the principals listening, whom this episode is for, who are trying to manage their school's safety efforts, which you guys have shared are super robust. No stone left unturned, no partnership unexplored. What advice do you have for our principals listening?
Dr. Grant Rivera: For our principals, and sometimes I feel like I'm still learning this as a superintendent, overcommunicate. Overcommunicate every time and listen. There may be times where there is something that pops on social media. There might be something written on a bathroom wall. There's never been a time that I regretted transparently communicating with families and staff. There have been times where I made a judgment call maybe not to for some variety of reasons. And then I now am on defense. And in today's culture, information moves fast. Sometimes information that is not accurate, and you have got to stay ahead of that narrative. And I would say as a principal, as a current superintendent, as a dad, people want more information not less. Always overcommunicate. Communicate the truth and you'll be given grace when necessary.
Ashley Mengwasser: From the superintendent. And for you, Chuck, as COO?
Chuck Gardner: I mean, I can't echo that enough. So it was something that... And we've all made our mistakes, so we've experienced it both ways. But at the end of the day, you're dealing with people's... One of the most important people in their life. And when something happens with their kid, they don't need to hear it from somebody else. They don't need to hear it through social media. They need to hear it directly from us. And at the end of the day it's about trust. And Grant, in the same way that he trust MPD when his girls walk through that door, we want to, as a principal, we want our communities to trust us and know that we're going to tell them even when things aren't good and they're not rosy. And then when they hear that rumor mill or something that's happening, they're like, "No, he would've told us if that was really going on." And they start to give you the benefit of the doubt and the grace.
And I think a lot of times principals fear being that transparent because they fear that someone's going to assign blame to them. "Well, there was another fight at the school today because they didn't do something." But I've always found that if you overcommunicate, in most cases, most people are going to give you grace in those situations, and it's going to stop some of the misinformation and actually make your job in the long run a little bit easier.
Ashley Mengwasser: Right. Because assigning blame is a wasted cause. It's really about these people looking for leadership. And because it is so clearly communicated by your district, you give them that comfort. Thank you so much for being here today, guys. We appreciate it.
Chuck Gardner: Absolutely.
Dr. Grant Rivera: Thank you.
Ashley Mengwasser: You are VIPs, Grant and Chuck, of Classroom Conversations, just like in the city of Marietta. Thank you both for taking umbrage and then taking action against anything that stands in the way of student safety. Okay, audience, you heard it here first. School safety is planned. School safety is protected, and it takes our wonderful safety minded leaders to show us the way. You're a great leader. I'm Ashley. Thank you for being here. Just think of Barney and stay safe. Goodbye for now. Funding for Classroom Conversations is made possible through the School Climate Transformation Grant.