Safe at school

timestamp icon
category icon Life

Student safety. With the recent rash of school shootings, it’s a topic that weighs heavily on the minds of principals, staff and parents.But how do administrators determine if their school is ready to respond in the event of crisis? Will the students know what to do? How will a police response be coordinated?

Schools are formulating plans to address these issues by taking a close look at current safety protocols.

Camas High School and Cape Horn-Skye Elementary in rural Washougal recently participated in lockdown drills with the police, hoping to get a better indicator of just how prepared they are in the event of an emergency.

“We’ve been wanting to try this drill for a few years, and the recent shooting at the end of 2012 created an urgency to make it happen,” said Steve Marshall, CHS principal.

The lockdown drill at CHS began at 7:43 a.m. last Tuesday, to coincide with the start of school. Students were not told until immediately beforehand. Parents were notified in advance about the drill, but didn’t know the exact date. They were also notified via email when the drill began, and with a follow-up email when it ended.

“We held this at 7:43 a.m. to simulate a chaotic lockdown situation,” Marshall said. “We also wanted to strengthen our relationship with the police department and by involving them, the students and staff took this much more seriously. We cleared the commons area in approximately 20 seconds.”

In the lockdown scenario, the administrative team was in a meeting and another staff member had to call the lockdown, after an “armed” intruder came into the building.

Within four minutes, the typical police response time, officers were unlocking the door and rushing into the school. No one carried actual weapons, but instead bright blue plastic replicas. Led by Tim Fellows, school resource officer, the “intruder” was apprehended within a few minutes and all wings of the school were checked as per drill protocol.

“The involvement of the CPD was critical to this drill,” Marshall said. “As a result of their involvement, students and staff took it much more seriously than our monthly emergency drills. By simulating how we might actually respond, the administrative team was then able to better assess what we could expect from our teachers and students as well as the effectiveness of our security protocols in a real emergency.”

After the drill was over, Marshall and dean of students and safety officer Bryan Wilde met with school district administrators, Camas Police Chief Mitch Lackey, Mayor Scott Higgins, and officers involved in the drill.

“This made a world of difference in the level of seriousness here,” Wilde told the officers. “Your presence helped add that extra element.”

In a letter to parents prior to the drill, Wilde said the safety and security of students is “paramount.”

“We are dedicated to preventing and, if necessary, responding effectively to an array of emergency situations,” he said.

Wilde gave examples such as the school’s comprehensive crisis management plan, developed in collaboration with Camas police and fire departments, as well as Clark county agencies.

“CHS also uses a coordinated response management system, which enables us to communicate with several agencies simultaneously in the event of a crisis,” he said. “All staff and students rehearse various crisis responses monthly. Following every drill, administrators meet to discuss any areas of concern and ideas on how we could improve.”

At the debriefing Tuesday, Superintendent Mike Nerland praised high school administrators for their work.

“The high school team went above and beyond in planning this,” he said. “Today’s drill shows that.”

Nerland added that by keeping school safety plans current, the district can focus on its primary mission: Educating students.

“By keeping in line with current safety practices with support of local agencies, and tools like lighting, security cameras, fencing and entry control points, we are able to keep our first focus on teaching and learning,” he said.

Beyond the recent national tragedies, Marshall’s reasons for planning a coordinated lockdown effort were personal:

“The new state evaluation framework for administrators has one area called ‘Safe Schools,’” he said. “In good conscience, I could not give myself an above average rating if we didn’t do this first. I think the lockdown was a total success, because it gives us a framework for what we are doing well, and what can be improved.”

Camas police Sgt. Scot Boyles said the drill helped both sides to recognize what their expectations were in such a situation.

“It is important to get the message out to parents that we are working together to keep their children safe,” he said. “That is the primary reason for this drill. For us, it’s not a training exercise. We do those in the summer when no one is in the school. Overall, the lockdown drill went well from both sides.”

In Washougal, school safety measures have also undergone scruntity in the last two months.

“We are reviewing all school facilities to upgrade security where possible including classroom doors which can be locked from either side of the door,” said Dawn Tarzian, superintendent, in a letter to parents. “The district is also looking into the feasibility of implementing a buzzer system to control access to the schools.”

In addition, the SRO is making periodic visits to other schools, and the district is hoping to have increased communication and partnership opportunities with the police.

Cape Horn-Skye has been using the partnership model with the Skamania County Sheriff’s Office for several years now.

When the rural school was built in 2001, then superintendent Bob Donaldson asked if the sheriff’s office could have a substation at the school.Principal Mary Lou Woody enjoys having the officers on campus, even if they mainly come and go in the evenings.

“It helps prevent break-ins and vandalism, and the teachers feel very safe working here at night,” she said. “And if I ever need anything, I can just slide a note under the door.”

Woody added that the officers assisted in a lockdown drill last month, similar to the one in Camas.

“They gave us some great feedback,” she said. “You really need to be ready for anything. We make sure we do the lockdown during the busiest times of the day, when there are lots of kids in the hallways. They take it very seriously.”

Despite its distance from emergency services, Woody feels confident the school is safe.

“I believe it is so because of the rules we have in place,” she said.

“Employees and volunteers are also very vigilant about who should be in the building during the day and if they ever see anything out of the ordinary, they tell us. But we continue to practice with safety drills.”