School Security

Districts Get To Work Making Themselves Safer with REMS Grants

A small Arizona district will be bringing in expertise to help put the finishing touches on school safety plans and training. An Oregon district will be hiring a part-time person to coordinate emergency planning. A sizable Florida district will be adding GPS and biometric identification systems to its rural school buses and compensating school leaders to complete emergency management training and update their schools' plans.

These three school districts were winners--along with 105 other districts--of funding from the United States Department of Education's Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) program. The goal of the program, which speedily opened in March, closed in April, and announced recipients in July, was specifically to fund the creation or strengthening of emergency management plans and processes in schools.

According to a spokeswoman with the Department of Education, the process drew 334 applicants, all of whom were competing with each other for a piece of the $26 million funding pie. "There was no formula to determine awards," explained Jo Ann Webb, public affairs specialist. "They're discretionary competitive grants. The awards are based on the scores that each application received. These scores were derived by an external panel based on how well the application met the selection criteria." According to Webb, each application received a score from zero to 100. Once the scores were finalized by a review panel, the department rank-ordered the applications from the highest to the lowest score, then funded down that list until the money ran out.

Oregon Schools on a Volcano
The district with the smallest allocation--Oregon Trail School District 46, which received $53,281--will be using its money to hire a part-time person for 18 months to coordinate its emergency management planning. According to Julia Monteith, communications and grants director for the district, the work will include National Information Management System (NIMS) certification training for all district administrators and key staff.

The importance of that effort, she explained, is twofold. First, it will put participants on a common ground regarding terminology, "so when you're working with other organizations--the fire department and the police department--you're all be using the same words. Everybody knows what you're talking about, so you can work together more easily." Second, the training outlines what kinds of emergencies the district might need to prepare for.

Her district has been fortunate, Monteith said, because the two emergencies it has faced--a small earthquake several years ago and winter storm damage--took place while the kids were on school breaks. "We haven't had anything like a school shooting. But we're working with emergency agencies right now on preparing a communication plan for the Swine flu."

The district, which covers 425 square miles, already has an emergency plan, she pointed out, but it needs to be revised. Also, each of its 10 schools needs its own plan, because the schools are isolated. Some are actually located on Mt. Hood, a volcano in Northern Oregon.

The person the district hires to oversee its plan development will also be in charge of coordinating communication efforts on the use of a new high school as the area shelter in the event of an emergency. "The fire department has been doing a lot of work to get the community together on this," Monteith explained. "So there's a lot of preliminary things to be done. It's just that now we'll have the person to lay out the school district piece of it. We can go full bore and get the training we need."

Bolstering Communication in Arizona
Fort Thomas Unified School District in Southeastern Arizona, which received $106,661 from the REMS program, has just three schools and about 600 students, 93 percent of which are Native American and 97 percent of which come from the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Its isolation is even more pronounced than that of Oregon Trail.

"We're out in the middle of nowhere," said Sherry Porter, federal projects coordinator. "We are probably 25 miles from any law enforcement at all. It would take an officer 40 minutes to get on the scene. A lot can happen. We've not been trained. We've worked on our crisis plan over the last year, but we haven't had a formal evaluation." So her district will be using the money to hire a project director with emergency management expertise to complete that plan and more. "This person will also be working with county emergency services as well," she said. "They'll be holding response teams courses, emergency exercises, and NIMS and incident command system (ICS) training."

The ultimate goal: Should one of the schools need some sort of assistance, they'll know what to do and who to contact, given the specific type of emergency.

The district knows that it needs help. For example, the crisis plan done by a previous school safety officer showed the need to develop specific plans for each school. "We had a team from the elementary school and a team of teachers and staff from the high school looking at the plan," Porter said. "If there was crisis at the high school, it made sense. Everybody would meet at the church next door if they had to leave the building. But the elementary school is across the highway. So the district plan said everybody would meet at this church parking lot. We would have to take kids down a hill, across the railroad tracks, and across the highway."

District challenges are exacerbated by a lack of communication channels. Although cell phone service is decent in the district community, it's less reliable on the reservation. Also, many families lack phone or Internet service on the reservation. When a household does call the district, more than likely it's a long distance call, a service many families lack if they do have a phone. "We don't have much communication with the families on the reservation. A lot can't even call to say, 'My kids won't be there,' or 'My kid never got home,'" said Porter.

Whereas part of the mandate of the REMS grants is to coordinate efforts with local law enforcement, public safety, and emergency management offices, other districts probably don't face the jurisdictional challenges of Fort Thomas. Since reservations are sovereign nations with their own courts and laws, local and county jurisdiction ends at the reservation border.

"I can see a situation at the school, say, a fight brewing at the school. Those students get on the bus, and it gets heavier-duty. Then they get on the reservation and something breaks out. Then what?" Porter asked. "Hopefully, with this money we'll be able to get all these services to work together."

Tracking Students in Florida
Although REMS applicants were advised to top off their requests at no more than half a million dollars, Polk County Public Schools in Florida received $592,602, said Marcia Ford, director of grant acquisitions. "The only reason we had the nerve to ask for more was, a) we're such a large district, and b) we had some real specific objectives in getting the administrators trained." The district had failed in three previous attempts at getting funding for its emergency management-related programs. This time, Ford said, the grant team--with included her staff, plus members of the emergency management office, the safety director, technicians, and vendors that supplied pricing information--"were real specific about demonstrating the needs. We set specific objectives, and I think that helped."

The grant will help the district, which has 93,000 students and 13,000 employees, in several ways. The centerpiece of the plan is to motivate administrators--principals, assistant principals, and deans--to complete online Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) training. Although the training itself is free, Polk County will be applying some of the funding to merit bonuses. "We want to make sure that administrators take it to heart and use the information to update their local plans."

The district isn't unfamiliar with emergencies. In 2004, the same year that Katrina tore across Southern Florida before striking New Orleans, three large "destructive" hurricanes crossed Polk County, driving people into shelters on school grounds. In 2006 three schools went into lockdown after a shooting in the vicinity left a policeman and police dog dead.

"We had all the systems in place," said Ford. "We have an excellent coordination with law enforcement agencies; but we found we could do more training within our own schools with our own administrators."

In the past, she explained, the classroom teachers were dependent on waiting for administrators to tell them what to do. "In turn, the administrators were too dependent on waiting for the Safe Schools Office to tell them what to do. Now, they'll be able to respond immediately to local law enforcement and know how the command incident system works." As part of that training, principals will be encouraged to build relationships with their local police and fire departments.

The district will also issue flip-chart type books for each classroom, spelling out what to do in specific types of emergencies. "Teachers are pretty good at a lot of things," Ford said. "They all know what to do with lockdowns, bomb threats, a non-custodial parent on campus. This will extend training to toxic substances, an accident on the highway next to the school, terrorist attacks."

Polk County, which covers a wide swatch of geography through central Florida, will also be installing global positioning systems (GPSs) on about 50 of its 500-bus fleet, in particular the ones with routes in rural areas.

"We send buses out to the Green Swamp," said Ford, describing it as a multi-county backcountry area outside of Orlando. "We send buses out to the Kissimmee Chain of Lakes, which drains to the Everglades. Both are extremely rural areas." Since those buses sometimes get out of radio contact, the GPSs will enable the district to track their locations.

The same buses will install biometric readers to track individual students by thumbprint. "We'll be able to track when [a] kid gets on and off the bus," Ford explained "If the bus is running late, we can send e-mail to parents saying, 'Your kid is on the bus and will be home 10 minutes late.' Also, we'll be able to tell when a child didn't get on the bus. If they try to get off at wrong stop, bus drivers will be immediately alerted to that."

The district considered issuing plastic identification cards that could be scanned, but it nixed that idea. "They would cost us about a dollar apiece, and kids would lose them," said Ford. "This is more practical for us. This is the same technology that eventually could be used to unlock laptop computers, pay for lunch in the lunch line, and check out books from the library," she added.

When Ford heard about the grant being approved, she bought cakes for the participants who helped pull the paperwork together. "These people are going to work their butts off making this project work," she said. "And the district is going to be much better off in the end."