Multiple Districts — John Wittkowski has a lot to say about student safety and security. It’s a good thing, too, because he’s now overseeing emergency response practices for Region I schools.
Wittkowski was recently hired to serve as the Region I emergency response and safety coordinator, a job that covers Cedar Springs, Sparta, Kent City, Comstock Park, Kenowa Hills, Northview and Rockford school districts.
A former sergeant with the Grand Rapids Police Department who retired after 28 years there, Wittkowski also has taught at Grand Rapids Community College, Ferris State University and Grand Valley State University.
He said the new role is a “perfect fit.”
“As a retired police officer — knowing that I still wanted to work and that I wanted to work in education — it was very fortuitous for me when this position came up,” Wittkowski said. “I’ve really enjoyed not only teaching, specifically, but … the atmosphere of education.
“I like being in the classroom — I like the energy,” he added. “It gives me a sense of purpose. … It’s just rewarding to me.”
The Region I emergency coordinator position is a novel one — possibly the first of its kind, said Cedar Springs Superintendent Scott Smith, who spearheaded the development of the role.
While school resource officer positions are common, the Region I coordinator will be an employee of Kent ISD, as opposed to the result of a partnership between school districts and a specific law enforcement agency.
“It’s the first position like this — that we’re aware of — in the state,” Smith said. “It’s just a new concept. It’s not common.”
Smith and the other Region I superintendents helped with the job description and candidate screening process prior to the official hire, which was made by Kent ISD.
A Holistic Approach
Wittkowski’s not concerned with who got there first; he just wants to do the job right. That means focusing on more than just responses to violent incidents, and broadening the outlook to include preventive measures and a holistic assessment of the various factors at play when violence strikes.
“I think it’s important that we create a team that’s … prepared in the event of an emergency or violent episode, but it’s more than that,” he said. “We want to talk about a level of continuity, and we want to ensure that we not only address the issue of violence, but we look at how to avert violence. Those are the stories you don’t hear about: those instances that were averted.”
Wittkowski said it’s crucial to understand that violent events “don’t occur in a vacuum.”
“They accumulate over time,” he said. “We need to ensure that, if we see signs that a young person is spiraling, we need to get in there and address those issues.”
The issues in question include trauma, mental health, substance use and various other factors, all of which Wittkowski plans to take into account.
The job won’t be limited to dealing with threats, though. Wittkowski will also coordinate responses to natural disasters, accidents, health and wellness matters and more. He’ll also train staff members and act as a liaison between school districts and first responders.
The position was developed to streamline crisis response throughout the region. Wittkowski will oversee the development of a roadmap to give all the cohort schools “one basic playbook” to work from, Smith said.
“The time required for teams to take action will be reduced by having a consistent emergency response system in place regardless of the district,” Cedar Springs’ Smith said. “The other benefit to responding to emergencies as a region is that our school teams will be able to deploy to other districts as needed to manage the emergency so the district in crisis can focus on their people.”
Smith said Wittkowski will also bring valuable insight into crisis management strategies.
“The reality is that most educators are not experts in the areas of emergency response planning and security. This position adds a level of expertise we simply didn’t have at our disposal on a regular basis.”
Wittkowski is ready to hit the ground running in his first few days on the job.
“My goal is to … meet with every district, meet with every superintendent, and kind of develop some common threads,” he said. “Threat assessments, all of that stuff, is pretty rudimentary and pretty standardized, but even district-to-district, student-to-student, there are nuances that we need to learn about and understand, so if we have a similar incident in the future we kind of have a template for how to address it.”
‘It’s the first position like this — that we’re aware of — in the state. It’s just a new concept. It’s not common.’— Cedar Springs Superintendent Scott Smith
Potential for Growth
Participating school districts will kick in to fund the position. Kent ISD and the Region I districts — with the exception of Rockford — will kick in 14.3% of Wittkowski’s salary, totaling about $22,000 each.
Wittkowski will have an office at Kent ISD, and will be working in each cohort district for approximately 25 to 30 days per year.
Kent ISD Superintendent Ron Koehler, Smith and Wittkowski himself each said they’d like to see the regional emergency coordinator position expand, with other areas developing similar roles.
“Ultimately, I see us finding a role with the remaining districts … so that at some point in the future we have common language for emergencies, we have common protocols and we have mutual response,” Koehler said.
Added Smith: “How cool would it be if we could do this across the county? It wouldn’t matter if it was an Ottawa County officer, or a Kent County officer, or a state police officer, or first responders, or fire department or FBI — whoever’s coming in, they know that we’re going to have a common plan. They’re going to have an individual that’s highly skilled, highly trained, leading the district.”