From bombs to burst pipes: Indian River finishes school safety plans

Date Published: 
April 4, 2014

Coastal Point • Submitted: School safety monitors are recognizable in uniform gray polo shirts. As constables, these Indian River School District employees would also have unique IR badges.Coastal Point • Submitted: School safety monitors are recognizable in uniform gray polo shirts. As constables, these Indian River School District employees would also have unique IR badges.At 10 a.m. on a Monday morning, children at John M. Clayton Elementary were busy with schoolwork and class projects.

One minute later, they were huddled in the dark, silently waiting behind locked doors.

“This is what you want to see,” said Assistant Principal Matthew Keller, walking into a ghost-town gymnasium.

JMC was practicing a high-level security lockdown. Part of the new comprehensive school safety plan, such drills “make sure everyone responds the way they’re supposed to,” said Principal Charlynne “Char” Hopkins.

To effectively see how things work on their first high-level drill, Hopkins hadn’t even warned the school safety monitor, Deborah Jester, a retired Delaware State Police trooper. At the last minute, she announced it as a practice drill, so no one would call 911.

Immediately, there was a scuffle of footsteps upstairs, and doors thudded closed. Hopkins, Jester and Keller strode out to see the results, checking every classroom door. The school was almost dead silent.

If someone had actually illicitly entered the school, students would be instructed to cover the windows, turn out the lights and shelter in place.

In 2012, the State of Delaware required public schools and districts to create comprehensive school safety plans. Some schools already had great plans, but others didn’t. The Omnibus School Safety Act would wrap hundreds of loose plans into a specific framework for any situation. Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security (DSHS) would help.

Schools had five years to prepare — until the 2012 shooting in Sandy Hook Elementary, Conn., changed everything.

“The governor said, ‘Look — this is important … you don’t have five years. Make it happen in two,” said Randall Hughes, DSHS principal deputy. The end of this school year is the new deadline.

Although school board members might have preferred that the IRSD had been invited to the state pilot program, school board Vice President Rodney Layfield recently reported that the entire district was still only weeks behind the individual pilot schools.

Now, all IRSD schools are in compliance with DSHS in the online Emergency Response Information Portal (ERIP).

“I think that our schools are safer now than they’ve ever been,” said Mark Steele, assistant superintendent, who did much safety work in his previous position as IR High School principal. “I thought we had safe schools to begin with, but now…”

Schools crisis teams worked long hours to reach this point, including staff, administrators and safety monitors.

Safety statewide

Delaware has about 228 public and charter schools, Hughes said, though that number fluctuates occasionally.

The state-funded safety program delivers ERIP to all schools for an initial contract cost of $485,000, Hughes said. “We are paying for that [and] initial training.”

Hughes noted that DSHS reduced manpower costs by not increasing staff.

“We did not add new positions, [but instead] repurposed open positions,” he said, “so we didn’t tax the budget.”

Working for DSHS now and as the IRSD Board’s former vice president by night, “I was able to use a lot of what I learned for my day job for my night job.”

He was modeling the IRSD’s program after the one at Red Clay Consolidated School District in Wilmington, with leadership from Preston Lewis, IRSD administrator of student services, and school resource officers Chad Harmon and Jeff Hudson.

“I think parents should be happy, as well, with the progress they’re making,” Hughes said. “By taking the Delaware plan and putting it on electronic portal, it puts it at the fingertips of our law enforcement … and schools.”

A click of the mouse presents around 30 emergency scenarios, from earthquake to cardiac arrest. Schools could often just use a fill-in-the-blank approach.

Police and ambulance services could electronically access the plans, site maps and aerial photographs. That especially helps non-local first-responders “to take a lot of the guesswork out, so one person doesn’t have repository info” on how to handle an allergic reaction or large-scale evacuation, Keller said.

Historically, “You didn’t think about it until you had to.” Now, he said, people are planning for events they only hope never happen. “Everyone wants to know they did all that they can.”

In monthly IRSD school safety meetings, talk has ranged from the cost of alarms to the trouble with emergency radios.

“Everything’s worked out smoothly. The district’s been taking their time and trying to do it right,” Hopkins said. “The kids have been great about it. They understand.”

What the people see

Every school now has buzzers, outside of the building, for visitors to ring. Front office staff can view guests on a camera and must actively admit them to the building before they can enter.

Every visitor must bring a state-issued ID, which is scanned against a 48-state sex-offender registry. That Raptor program has had several hits, so administrators know immediately when, for instance, a Level 3 sex-offender enters the school.

“We check absolutely everybody … always err on side of safety,” said Neil Beahan, principal at Southern Delaware School of the Arts, calling the system a “nice security blanket.”

People may only see a locked door and buzzer, but behind that button is a whole safety and security network.

The ID check may take an extra minute, but everyday vigilance will get the job done, beginning with the buzzer and the secretaries, whom Keller praised. Everyone must play their parts, because they never know when their job will be called up.

Keller complimented Lewis, Steele, Layfield and Hudson, who led the safety initiative.

“We ask the public just to support what we’re doing for public safety,” Lewis said. “I know it’s going to take a little bit longer to get into the building. This is all for the safety of students.”

The district still has a friendly policy to welcome parent and community visitors. But the administration wants “buildings locked as much as possible. We want to know who these people are on school property,” Lewis said.

Sometimes the simplest option is best. With that in mind, more classroom and school doors are locked, since shooters could be deterred by such resistance.

While the goal is to filter all visitors through the front office, some schools were not designed as such, and schools improvise.

The next step in safety

There are still wrinkles in the system. At John M. Clayton, several teachers had trouble with their locks, which one substitute teacher attempted to solve by building a barricade.

Using ERIP, schools can fix these individual issues or change a system-wide problem. Principals can now log every drill or actual event, and staff can find training information.

DSHS tested the district’s safety plans in an overall tabletop exercise. Layfield said the district did very well, with only a few bugs to solve.

“This is not a ‘gotcha,’” Hughes said. “We want to be partners. We want to be helpful. We have some expertise, and we want to offer that up.”

“I’m glad to report the small problems we’re having, because we’re having them during drills,” said Layfield. “They’re going to be improved in the future.”

The IRSD’s next move is to snap aerial photographs to help identify previously unidentified hazards, in addition to a review of the annual multi-page hazards checklist at each building. The district is reviewing punch-list items with security vendors and may incorporate a Run-Hide-Fight training program.

“It’s a moving target … but we’re trying to take care of it,” said John Eckrich, Buildings & Grounds supervisor.

“I think some of the biggest challenges is [that] our educators are swamped. … They have lots of stuff on their plate. It’s time-management,” Hughes said, although, “There’s not one person who says this isn’t important.”