In Safe Hands Schools adopt new crisis strategies for school year

Final in a four-part Baltimore’s Child series about school safety

Here’s a statistic that can be a little unnerving: 60 percent of active-shooter incidents end before police arrive, according to the FBI, which means that those in the midst of the crisis are handling it before law enforcement can provide support.

Counselors and teachers talk through an emergency scenario at ALICE training this past spring.

In recent years, school safety officials have considered what this means for children and their teachers. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Education announced that lockdowns, the idea of sequestering students and staff in a safe, impenetrable location to wait out a crisis, were not enough and that school systems needed to train students and staff about other options.
After the shooting in Parkland, Florida earlier this year, Maryland lawmakers and school officials alike considered even more ways to improve classroom safety.

This past spring, dozens of school officials from around the state attended a two-day safety training session at the former Seton Keough High School in Baltimore City, led by instructors from the Ohio-based ALICE Training Institute. ALICE stands for alert, lockdown, inform, counter and evacuate, and during the first day of training, teachers, counselors and other school staff practiced what to do if they couldn’t lock down in a classroom. In some cases, they learned that creating a diversion to distract an intruder and then evacuate might be a better option.

The purpose of the training is to empower school staff who can then empower students, says ALICE’s national training director, Shawn Slezak.

“Kids know what to do. We need to empower them to do what they already know,” Slezak says.

For instance, if there is an intruder in the classroom, it’s OK for children to break a window to escape. Or throw their school-issued laptop at the person. A child may worry that he or she could get in trouble for doing that — and on an ordinary school day, they would. As adults, we need to remind them that in dangerous situations those rules don’t apply, Slezak says.

After the first day of training, many attendees went home and talked with their families about what to do in an emergency. When they returned the next day, they shared these conversations with the larger group. Slezak commends them, saying that parents often cite a time factor as a reason they don’t talk to their children about preparedness. But in the day-to-day, these conversations take only five to 10 minutes.

“You don’t have time to not have these conversations,” he tells the group.

Short conversations throughout a year’s time are a great way to reinforce safety lessons with children, he says.

Less than six weeks after training attendee Donoven Brooks took a job as the director of safety and security for Harford County Public Schools, the Parkland shooting occurred. Like a lot of safety officials, he sees the tragedy as a call to review and retool. In fact, on a day of a nationwide student walkout to protest school shootings, Harford County school staff asked their students to instead stay in the safety of their schools and talk about how they felt.

“We asked them what safety and security would look like for them,” Brooks says. Students and their parents shared a lot, all of which will inform how staff trains for emergencies this year.

“We’re taking a holistic approach to safety and security,” Brooks says. “We’re looking at what you do with the kid who eats by himself and is withdrawn. We’re looking at helping families. We’re looking at how to recover from an incident and how we build resiliency.”

Statewide changes

This past spring, Gov. Larry Hogan approved the Maryland Safe to Learn Act of 2018. Effective June 1, the act requires public high schools to have a school resource officer or an emergency plan with local police by the start of this school year. Public middle and elementary schools must meet the same requirement by next school year.

In Baltimore County there will be new training for staff and students, says April Lewis, the school system’s executive director for the Department of School Safety.

For middle and high schools, the county is also adding nine school resource officers to the 10 officers they have now who act as floaters. For elementary schools, each county police precinct will provide one officer to serve those schools in that district.

The Department of School Safety is working as well to strengthen the systems of security that are already in place. That means protecting the buildings, Lewis says, and for students to not open or hold doors for people they don’t know. The county will practice “safety over courtesy.”

“You can have all the cameras in place, but if we as humans don’t use the tools we have as humans,” it won’t matter, she says.

Staff training will take precedence this summer, Lewis says. “We already do 19 drills every school year — four of those where the administrator does not know beforehand, making them think more on their feet.”

Nineteen drills might sound like a lot to parents, but they are staggered throughout the year. They include: two fire drills in the first 30 days of school, plus one every month after; two evacuation drills; two rally point drills; two severe weather drills; and two lockdown drills. Drills can be combined, and if an actual emergency occurs, say a school evacuates because of an odor of smoke, that counts as a drill as well.

Schools also practice for the “unlikely scenario” of an active shooter, Lewis says, and will update staff training on that.

Another focus: social media. Lewis urges students to be wary of what they post, as that could actually worsen a crisis situation by spreading false or inaccurate information.

Parents can expect their children to hear a message of sharing with “police or teachers instead of friends.”

“One thing we are going to be stressing this fall is the importance of people using social media responsibly when spreading awareness of a dangerous situation,” she says.

Oyin Adedoyin contributed to this story.

Part One: What Now?

Part Two: First Line of Defense

Part Three: A Holistic Approach

About Jessica Gregg

Jessica Gregg is the former editor of Baltimore's Child. She is a happy rowhouse dweller and mother of two.

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