Spotlight Story

At the beginning of the 1995-96 school year, two guys sat down for a cup of coffee and an introductory discussion. Those two guys were Mike MacMillan, the freshly-minted Wright County Court Services Director, and Nick Miller, the new principal at Buffalo High School.

Little did they know that impromtu conversation would lead to one of the most comprehensive and impressive programs Wright County has ever witnessed – Wright County Safe Schools.

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this school year, it was a program that could have just as easily died off after that random cup of coffee. MacMillan had observed a disconnect between county services and schools, as well as their mutual desire to serve the students that both of them dealt with on a daily basis.

For his part, Miller had created a skeletal version of Safe Schools as the assistant principal at Bemidji High School – trying to bring county government and schools together to work as a team instead of separate entities. For MacMillan, it was the timing of a fundamental change to his office that brought him to Miller’s door.

“At the time, I was reorganizing our department,” MacMillan said. “We were a growing county and, when I got here in 1993, it seemed obvious to me that we were going to be getting bigger. I tried to regionalize my office by county location and when it came to the juvenile side, I based it on school districts. Schools are identified as the centers of communities. Out of that came this concept of building the relationship between the county and school districts, which was a little fractured at the time. There wasn’t any animosity between them, but everybody was just doing their own thing and there wasn’t much in the way of overlap.”

Miller was ecstatic to see a kindred spirit in MacMillan, who came from the same mindset of looking to combine efforts that had run on separate tracks – school districts, law enforcement, cities and criminal justice partners. When MacMillan made the proposition, Miller realized their goals meshed seamlessly.

“We were a great fit,” Miller said. “I was always an idea guy. I came up with a lot of ideas that I thought would work. Mike was a ‘see it through’ guy who could take an idea and run with it to get it accomplished and implemented. It started with that one conversation and we both got to work trying to get the people we worked with on board.”

The initial goal of Safe Schools – it didn’t have a name yet, it was still just a concept – was to attempt to address and reduce juvenile crime. For the program to go anywhere, MacMillan knew he needed to get the buy-in from the two most powerful individuals in county government – Sheriff Don Hozempa and County Attorney Wyman Nelson.

“There was no magic wand you could wave to accomplish this,” MacMillan said. “The idea was to get the key players together to have a conversation – myself, the county attorney, the sheriff, Nick and the police chief of Buffalo. They thought it was a good idea and we set up that meeting and that was what got the ball rolling.”

Seeing the merits of the program, Wright County was on board. The program started just with Buffalo, but Miller used his connections with education colleagues to quickly get the program expanded to Monticello, Annandale and St. Michael-Albertville. It took time, but eventually all 10 school districts in the county joined in and Safe Schools was off and running at full steam.

The program opened the lines of communication, as the arms of the criminal justice system (sheriff, attorney, Court Services, probation and the Human Services Department) for the county and the hierarchy of the education system began sharing information and ideas. What made this program unique was that there wasn’t anybody “in charge” – one group wasn’t dictating policy or an agenda to the other. The cup of coffee became a pot of coffee and then a coffee urn as more players came to the table and widened the perimeter.

As Safe Schools grew, the question was asked whether this was a program that could be sustainable? That was a legitimate concern early on in the program because of the turnover of leaders both at the county and school district levels.

“The sustainability issue took place over the first five years,” MacMillan said. “There were changes in principals and the program was relationship-based, not an official program. Once we got momentum in each of the districts, it just kept going because there was buy-in from school staff that had been part of those early meetings. I think the commitment of my office, the County Attorney’s Office and the Sheriff’s Office to be present was vital. They saw us coming to them and that’s how we built trust with them and with their communities. But, it still needed leadership and commitment. This came from the leadership of school principals and Court Services agents serving the communities in making sure meetings were scheduled, facilitated and that local needs were at the forefront.”

The program needed champions to carry the banner on the county side. Fortunately, two of them – MacMillan and County Attorney Tom Kelly – were staunch advocates. The four sheriffs that have been in office have been just as strong in their advocacy – Hozempa, Gary Miller, Joe Hagerty and Sean Deringer.

For the last 22 years, Kelly was a fixture at Safe Schools meetings as Wright County Attorney. A strong proponent of a team approach, he dove into the water headfirst to try to make Safe Schools successful.

“It’s amazing when you can fill a room with people who are all from a different discipline,” Kelly said. “You have representatives from so many different walks representing the county, the school district and the community. Nobody is taking charge of the meetings. It’s a chance to share information and ideas and has worked extremely well for a long time because Safe Schools has had a buy-in from so many people.”

When he was sheriff, Hagerty said there were 44 Safe Schools meetings a year. Some schools did their meetings monthly. Others did them every other month. But, Hagerty said in his time as sheriff, he could count on one hand the number of meetings he missed – despite a sheriff being “double- and triple-booked all the time.” He often found out about the new designer drug of choice by school administrators finding them in their schools. For law enforcement, having an extra set of eyes and ears was invaluable to helping his office do its job effectively and prevent potential school tragedies that have taken place nationwide.

“I’ve always told people that those were the most important meetings I could go to as a sheriff,” Hagerty said. “I think we prevented a lot of things from potentially happening here that you read in the papers that happen elsewhere. Because of Safe Schools, we could cut through a lot of red tape. Everyone involved has a stake in keeping the schools safe and identifying problems when they arise.”

While the support of the county attorney and sheriffs wasn’t a prerequisite for the success of Safe Schools, it was an important component to getting community support. Also key was the appointment of new Courts Services Supervisor Abe Abrahamson, who has coordinated Safe Schools meetings for the last two decades. Abrahamson said it has been invaluable to the success of Safe Schools to keep the lines of communication open between schools and county government.

“A large part of the success has been the commitment of the leaders,” Abrahamson said. “We’ve been fortunate in that we’ve had such a strong commitment from our sheriffs and county attorney. It has added to the credibility to the program and lets the school leaders know that the county is genuinely committed to their district.”

It seems like every generation of students has its own new set of issues to rise out of nowhere to become “a thing” unique to the time period. Among the initiatives to come out of Safe Schools has included dealing with issues such as in-school safety, traffic awareness/safety for student drivers, racism, bullying, sexting, diversion programs (like wRight Choice) and vaping – all of which became issues initially in one school district, but spread throughout the Safe Schools system quickly and became a mutual issue.

Perhaps the most important spin-off of Safe Schools is MEADA. Initially called Meth Education And Drug Awareness due to the explosion of the methamphetamine epidemic, “Meth” has since been replaced by “Mentorship” because, while not eradicated, groups like Safe Schools took a stand to fight back against meth rather than watch helplessly from the sidelines.

“That’s one of types of organic things we’ve been able to develop through Safe Schools,” MacMillan said. “MEADA was pivotal in making change in our state by pushing hard to make it more difficult to buy the ingredients needed to make meth. One thing we’ve learned from Safe Schools is that it is hard to duck from issues. They’re right there. Somebody may bring up a sensitive tough topic and it allows us to talk about it and potentially make change. MEADA is an example of that.”

Organic has been a buzz phrase for Safe Schools because it has never lost its initial “cup of coffee” approach. Each community has its own form and structure and issues to one school district aren’t issues to all. It has become malleable to change with the times to adjust and change form. It has maintained its initial informal goal and it has been about representatives from the schools, the local communities and the county knowing each other by name and learning to drop their guards down to work together instead of separately.

“There are no grants to facilitate this, there’s no money coming in, it’s just based on that cup of coffee theory and sharing information,” MacMillan said. “Sometimes, out of that comes something. Without building those relationships and developing a level of trust, we would have had a hard time sustaining anything.”

Understanding that each school district is unique has been the hallmark of Safe Schools. In 2006, the first joint Safe Schools meeting was held in August and allowed all the key players to be in the same place at the same time and share information. That has allowed for communities to share information that previously wasn’t possible and has led to the informal, organic growth, strength and sustainability of the program.

Miller marvels at what he has seen grow from that random cup of coffee because, while he is no longer the principal in Buffalo, the legacy he helped carve out lives on beyond the boundaries of Wright County.

“It is one of the most unique programs I’ve ever been a part of,” Miller said. “I’ve done presentations at the State Principals Association discussing this. Similar programs have grown all over the place over the years, but it all started here in Buffalo. It has become a model for not duplicating services, not wasting taxpayer money and opening lines of communication.”

Most of the founders of the program have moved on from where they were 25 years ago. But, while they may be gone, they are not forgotten. They have been replaced by those with the same passion for understanding the formative lives of teenagers and turning it into a community effort to assure their safety and assist those who have gone off the path.

“The thing that I love about how Safe Schools has evolved is that it doesn’t need one or two key people to keep it going,” MacMillan said. “After I’m gone, it will still be going. Schools will get new superintendents and principals and it will still be going. It’s been an asset for everyone involved.”

Just as MacMillan gave Miller the last word in that first “cup of coffee” discussion, it seems only fitting he gets it again in summing up 25 years of Safe Schools.

“It’s got to be one of the cheapest, most successful, efficient demonstrations of government agencies working together,” Miller said. “Every taxpayer has to look at that model and say, ‘Wow! That makes sense. That’s the way to do business.’ It has been such a tremendous success at so many levels. We didn’t know when we started that we’d be talking about it 25 years later, but that speaks to the success of Safe Schools.”