Time was when the most involved emergency procedure a school district prepared for was the handful of fire drills required by law each year to allow school administrators a chance to test their buildings’ fire alarms and give students a 10- to 15-minute breath of fresh air and a temporary reprieve from the daily routine of their classrooms.
That was before towns like Jonesboro, Ark., Pearl, Miss., and Littleton, Colo., began to appear like pushpins on a map of school districts across the country where student gunfire has shattered the collective illusion of disaster preparedness.
But if anything at all positive has emerged from these tragedies of the last two and half years, it has been a renewed and invigorated commitment to evaluating just how safe our public schools really are, and what we can do to make them even safer. For Missoula County Public Schools (MCPS) that effort is being led by the Safer Schools Committee, chaired by Meadow Hill School Principal Nick Carter.
“In the last two and a half years there’s been a lot of reactive things to what’s gone on in schools,” says Carter. “What we’re trying to do is move from the reactive stage to the proactive, to where we’d like to be in what we call a ‘co-active’ stage, where we use all the resources at our disposal in the community to make our schools safer.”
One of the first steps implemented at the beginning of this year was the distribution of new emergency procedure manuals to all teachers and staff members in every school room in the county. These color-coded flip charts, which were two years in the making, read like a guide to the action-adventure films of Arnold Schwarzenegger, with such category headings as kidnappings, fires or explosions, hazardous material incidents, earthquakes, and bomb threats. Nevertheless, the emergency procedure manual provides teachers and staff with easy, step-by-step instructions for dealing with virtually any crisis that is likely (or unlikely) to occur.
“We’re trying to make these things, as much as possible, as second nature as a fire drill, so kids and teachers are comfortable with them,” says Carter, about the new level of training and preparedness now underway. “It’s some heavy stuff. It brings with it a level of discomfort. It’s not an easy feeling. People always envisioned that nothing would ever happen in a school except an accident out on the playground.”
Certainly the parents and teachers at Thurston High School never envisioned anything worse than that. Until May 21, 1998, that is, when a 15-year-old student walked into their crowded school cafeteria in Springfield, Ore., and opened fire on his fellow students, killing two and injuring 22. It was from that incident that came the document upon which the MCPS emergency procedure manual is based, as well as 25 to 30 other emergency procedure manuals from across the country.
Carter likes to emphasize that the committee is named “Safer Schools,” since by most standards Missoula’s public schools are already very safe. Nevertheless, with the growing attention nationwide being given to various crime risks, peer mediation training, “bully-proofing” techniques, and so on, the bar has been raised considerably for how one defines a “safe” school.
As Carter points out, many policies and procedures can be easily implemented with only minimal expense or training, such as requiring all visitors to the schools to check in with the front office and obtain a visitors’ pass, or limiting the number of unlocked doors in school buildings. Other safety precautions, such as staff training, installing phones and video monitors, and redesigning buildings, will be more costly and time-consuming.
But as for Missoula’s level of preparedness, Carter says, “We’re running neck-and-neck with anyone in the country. We’re as far along as a lot of people, and maybe sometimes farther along.”
For example, MCPS plans to send some of its staff to Washington, D.C., next month to go through crime prevention training that looks at the physical design of a school to evaluate and reduce its vulnerability to crime. In addition, representatives from the National Organization of Victims Assistance will be in Missoula sometime in January to train school crisis management teams in the “Good Grief” process, which helps students and staff deal with the grief of loss, such as the divorce of a parent or the death of a fellow student or teacher. And by the end of this year, Carter says they hope to have a draft of emergency management plan specific to every public school building, for comment and review by city and county emergency planners.
That said, however, Carter acknowledges that writing documents isn’t the end of the process, but only the beginning. Although school districts in Montana are not mandated to have disaster management plans in place, they are required to conduct at least eight drills a year, at least two of which must be disaster drills.
“We’ve done a lot of things to set the wheels in motion,” says Carter. “Once we can get the wheel, we have to make sure the wheel continues to fit our car.”