SCHOOL EMERGENCY MANAGEMENT: PREVENTING THE NEXT BIG HEADLINE
Violent events at schools -- such as those that occurred at Columbine High School in Colorado and at Virginia Tech University, mark these schools not by academic or extracurricular achievements, but by the events that occurred at an infamous point in history. Student and staff affected by such events see a shift in what they consider normal, and parents and students nationwide question whether our schools or even our communities remain safe. One of the most overlooked tools in addressing these concerns comes in the form of Emergency Management programs in schools. It points to the importance of making emergency management a part of every campus and every school district in the nation.
The positive legacy of Columbine and Virginia Tech, as well as numerous other educational institutions and public venues that have been affected by senseless acts of violence, is that these events laid the ground work for today’s first responders and emergency managers to fill in the broken places needed to secure schools, such as those witnessed recently in Pflugerville, Texas, where planning, partnerships and the actions of a single students saved lives.
In Pflugerville, the late March day began in a mundane fashion with the usual cadre of meetings and administrative work for staff. It was the second day of the preliminary State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) testing for the students. For the school district’s Emergency Manager, the day began at one of the district’s three high schools dealing with a security camera issue and discovering that fire alarms on the campus had been torn off the walls. Then came a visit to the school cafeteria to talk briefly to one of the School Based Law Enforcement officers regularly assigned to the campus. Next was an early morning meeting to discuss point to point sheltering for schools as part of ongoing Hurricane seasonal planning with costal jurisdictions.
It was during this conference call that the events of the day took a major shift; cell phones, began to buzz incessantly as both the campus and school district police reported that a 17-year-old female student had been apprehended at one of the high school campuses and that she had a loaded handgun in her possession. The student was resisting arrest. A quick good bye ended the hurricane planning discussion and the Emergency Manager and her team relocated to the other high school where the campus Command Post was being assembled.
First came staff briefings in the principal’s office, where the emergency manager and officers were briefed on the situation; safety and security issues were discussed and communication for parents and staff outlined. The possibility that this may be connected to a set of social networking threats made the previous week at the same school also was considered. The principal assumed the role of incident commander and the school district police department sergeant took on the role of operations chief. The emergency manager served as plans and logistics chief; and other school and administration staff filled remaining ICS roles as the event expanded.
Two district police officers followed up on the arrest, but it would be several hours before they returned and when they did a pile of paperwork was waiting for them, including but not limited to a Personal Contact form, and an affidavit of the day’s event. School and administration staff began the process of collecting statements from student witnesses, while others searched cars and counseled students about the incident.
All in a day's work
While all of this was taking place, school-based law enforcement officers continued to maintain daily duties including walking through and responding to other events on campus.
“It is important for the students to know you are always here for their safety and security. That is why we try to remain visible in the halls as often as possible,” Officer Rusty Brindle said as he made his rounds around the school during changing periods.
While on one of these rounds the officer was flagged down by a staff member who reported an apparent gas leak in a nearby science room. Upon arrival the officer was greeted by students. His inspection of the gas line showed that the line had been tampered with and, due to added wiring problems, was constantly being turned off and on, exacerbating the problem. The officer put a temporary fix on the line and then filed a maintenance request. Within the hour the officer was back in the science room with the Assistant Principal, the maintenance crew and the science teacher to fix the problem.
Meanwhile, the shooting command post had downsized to the officer’s office. Officer Brindle hadn’t gotten inside when he received a report of a suspicious backpack in a hallway. He had to check it out. While headed that way a fight broke out in front of the classroom where the backpack was left. Both situations were diffused quickly.
While still running ICS for the weapon on campus, officers were called to the nearby Opportunity Center for a mental health issue in which a student was destroying a classroom and had to be restrained. Police and campus staff responded and moved from an enforcement role to a more therapeutic one, where they had to talk the student down and come up with solutions to fix future outbursts.
“This case was fairly easy to settle after allowing the student’s sister to enter the room and talk to him. They are not always that easy,” Officer Otis Sanders said upon his return to the Incident Command post.
Everyday isn’t quite that active. Weekly safety walks and regular interaction with students is key to the success of the district and the students. “Interaction with the students is key; it is important for them to know you are there for them and can talk to you,” Officer Gloria Rock explained.
Communities are haunted by disasters and events that occur on school campuses everywhere, this is why daily safety and security efforts at schools are key to maintaining a safe and secure learning environment and while the events of this particular day kept law enforcement officers busy, it was the planning, training and coordination among staff and officers that mitigated both the direct and indirect effects of this incident.
-- Melanie Moss, TDEM Local Plans Unit