Safety Drill! Critical Response in Action
- By Dian Schaffhauser
Almost every school district has a crisis response plan. Ninety eight percent of public school districts in the country--some 79,870--reported that they had a written plan in the 2005-2006 school year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. Nine out of 10 of those same districts also reported running practice drills based on that plan. The most common drill scenario had to do with natural disasters, such as an earthquake or tornado.
Navajo Preparatory School (NPS) is, in some respects, fairly typical. But the school has also stepped up its drilling efforts, practicing responses to scenarios that fall well outside the bounds of natural disasters.
During the last nine years, the most severe incident that has taken place involved a driver who had been drinking coming onto campus, according to Sandra Westbrook, human resources director and development officer. School security handled the incident with the help of local law enforcement.
Despite this dearth of incidents in the new millenium, under the direction of Executive Director Betty Ojaye, the school decided to take its safety plan a step further by holding regular drills. "Student safety is our priority," Westbrook said. "Over the last two or three years it's evolved into something that's not just on paper but that's implemented and practiced and that we review with teachers and residential staff and security."
NPS, based in Farmington, NM, is a college prep high school with about 200 students, 160 of which live on campus. All of the students are Native American. The 82-acre campus has a 24-hour security force, primarily to keep people who aren't affiliated with the school out of the property. The school doesn't have video surveillance, but it does have an intercom system for in-building and outside communication.
Security consultant Michael Simpson, head of Phoenix Security Group, has worked with NPS specifically to hone the skills of its Critical Incident Response Team (CIRT). The most recent drill took place a few weeks ago, in mid-February 2010.
At about 9 a.m. Feb. 18, a disturbing note was found on campus, Ojaye recalled. "It showed a picture of a gun and it said, 'There is no tomorrow.'" The note was found by a student who gave it to a teacher, who alerted the principal. From there, Ojaye said, it was up to CIRT to determine how to respond.
Using its intercom system, CIRT put the campus into shelter-in-place--whereby everybody stays put but activities otherwise go on as normal. Teachers were responsible for accounting for all students and reporting in. CIRT--with Ojaye as the incident commander--instigated a search of buildings inside and out to see if there were any other suspicious items on school property. That yielded additional objects--and a student hiding out in a restroom (by direction of Simpson, who orchestrated the scenario).
At the same time another student reported a young person sitting just outside the school campus who possibly had a gun in his bag. At that point CIRT called 911 and put the campus into lockdown. In that event, teachers are expected to get students into a safe area in the classroom away from windows and doors, which were to be closed.
Another accounting of students and staff took place, and CIRT team members confirmed that all doors were secured. By 11 a.m. the drill had ended. As it turned out in the scenario, the student who had reported the suspicious looking person--one of three students assigned by Simpson to participate in the activities--had made that up, just like it sometimes happens in real life.
Then the learning began for NPS' CIRT. Some things it did absolutely correctly, and some things needed improvement.
According to Ojaye, "What we did find out in the process of going through this exercise was that we really needed better communication. Our buildings are spread out. We're in buildings with different levels. It didn't always work."
Also, she said, both of her radios died. Until somebody could find a replacement unit--some 10 minutes later--she had to resort to using her cell phone and office phone, "which meant I couldn't communicate by radio with all the CIRT team members."
Another challenge she cited: "We learned that everybody was trying to communicate on the radio at the same time. We were losing out on some of the communications because people were overlapping on the radio. We learned how to monitor that so we don't communicate at the same time."
Not all teachers did student accounting in a timely fashion, and some teachers--particularly those who were new--were unsure about what to do with the students for a shelter-in-place versus a lockdown.
But CIRT also got a couple of things just right: Westbrook, who also acts as the school's public affairs officer, was quickly assigned to monitor for members of the media and to keep them off campus and "out of the way."
Searches were properly done by people paired up. One person was expected to perform the search while the other watched out for suspicious activities around them. "The search was conducted very well because our staff had just trained on that," Ojaye said.
Ojaye has already begun the process of getting an intercom system installed in a new building that doesn’t have one but that houses classes, the cafeteria, and library--places occupied by students. Communication with people there during the drill had to take place by calling each extension number.
The team will also get back-up batteries for radios and do teacher training so that they're better prepared.
But overall, said Westbrook, she has seen a "100 percent improvement" from the initial exercise done by the school a few years ago. "That's the reason we've implemented the training and the drills--to continue to find out what the gaps are and to continue to improve communications. Our staff is [far] better compared to what it was even a year ago."
On a personal level, Ojaye said she feels more confidence in her decision-making as incident commander. "At first, I wanted to get out there and see what was really happening. [Mike Simpson] helped me to understand that my role isn't to be out there where the action is. I must restrain and make decisions from a higher level. We've learned we can handle emergency situations without panicking. We're getting better and better at that."
That assessment was proved shortly after the drill, when, during a basketball game, somebody got stuck in an elevator at the gym. "We immediately went into critical incident communications," Ojaye reported. "We got the fire department here. We had people waiting to meet them. We were really communicating on that one. We put our plan to use."