Communication, safety and protocols all part of preparation
By Marcy Stamper
Methow Valley School District staff were already updating an emergency response plan when a frightening and unprecedented situation involving a student erupted in early January at Liberty Bell High School.
The situation was handled by paramedics from Aero Methow Rescue Service, who provided care for a student with what was described as a medical condition.
But the incident has also shed light on a delicate balance — between the need for clear, prompt communication inside the schools and with families and first responders on one side, and the need to keep students and staff safe on the other side. On top of that, school officials are mindful of the need to protect students’ privacy.
What’s more, this tricky balance exists in a huge county, where a police officer can be an hour away.
School staff called 911 at about noon on Monday, Jan. 9, when they became concerned about the well-being of a student in a school hallway who was in obvious physical and/or emotional distress.
“We need the ambulance. We think it’s a medical thing,” a staff member told the 911 dispatcher, saying they were unable to control the student. “We need help here right away.”
Audio recordings of calls to 911 dispatchers were obtained by the Methow Valley News through a public records request. The recordings show school staff growing increasingly anxious as they tried to handle the situation on their own. The recordings were redacted to protect the confidentiality of the student and no identifying information was included.
During the incident, Liberty Bell Principal Deborah DeKalb locked down the building to ensure the safety of students and staff, according to School District Superintendent Tom Venable. The lockdown was lifted about 45 minutes later once the situation had been stabilized and the student was receiving appropriate care, Venable said.
During the lockdown, Venable notified families via Facebook and the school’s automated system.
Shortly after the incident began, students (who were on their lunch break) were told to return to their classrooms and to remain there, although it was not clear to all students that it was a full-scale lockdown, said Venable. There can be different levels of lockdown depending on the threat, he said.
Since no two events are exactly alike, schools need flexible protocols as well as “crystal-clear internal communications, beginning, during and after” an event, said Venable. They also need to be clear when talking to 911, he said.
“I’m not faulting anyone — they were assessing the situation in a nano-second,” he said.
Frantic 911 calls
As they tried to cope with the situation, school staff made three calls to 911 within 10 minutes. They told dispatchers they were concerned that the student could be a danger to him/herself. Some said they were concerned about risks to others in the school, according to the recordings.
“None of us have ever seen anything like this before — ever,” one person told the dispatcher as employees took turns describing the situation.
The first call to dispatch came in at 11:56 a.m. Aero Methow was dispatched at 12:02 p.m. and were en route four minutes later. The Aero Methow responders arrived at the school at 12:13 p.m., according to Cindy Button, director of services for Aero Methow.
Several minutes into the first 911 call, someone asked if the police were also coming. The dispatcher replied that police officers are not typically dispatched to deal with a medical issue, but the caller said that the principal had asked that police be sent as well.
The dispatcher said it would be a “delayed response” because there were no law enforcement officers in the area.
While the school is officially the jurisdiction of the Okanogan County Sheriff’s Office, the sheriff’s office often gets help from the Winthrop Marshal’s Office or Twisp Police Department, but neither of those agencies had anyone available that day. Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow was out on a planned medical leave, according to Vicki Hallowell, public safety clerk for the Twisp Police Department.
Winthrop currently has only Marshal Hal Henning on the force but, through mutual-aid agreements, the town always has emergency coverage, according to Mayor Anne Acheson. The town is recruiting for another deputy.
DeKalb told the dispatcher that the school staff believed all other students were safe. But the 911 recordings suggest that teachers and staff were overwhelmed. There were between five and eight male teachers trying to restrain the student, according to different people on the 911 calls.
“We need a sheriff at LBHS right now,” said another caller on a subsequent call to 911. “The student is out of control and is going to hurt [him/herself] or someone else. Someone needs to be here now and get this kid under handcuffs,” she said.
Another person at the school placed a third call to dispatch about 10 minutes after the initial call, sounding even more agitated. “Stop yelling,” the dispatcher told him. “I’ve talked to two other people. Having multiple people call doesn’t help.”
“If I look back at the whole situation, I didn’t know what was going on till we were into it a ways,” physical education teacher Mike Putnam said the week after the incident. Putnam was one of the teachers helping to restrain the student. Putnam said the student was also bleeding.
“We felt like they were saying it was the school’s problem,” said Putnam. “I was pretty damn pissed.”
“Any time there is an event outside the ordinary, it rattles us,” said Venable the week after the incident. “This is not part of a traditional teacher-training program. Teachers aren’t trained like Aero Methow, and it creates a lot of fear.”
“I’m just glad we had all the staff there — they did a great job — they kept the kids safe and kept everybody else safe,” said Putnam. “It’s one of those things — you can’t foresee it.”
To protect privacy, Venable could not provide the current status of the student.
Few and far between
As the incident at the school illustrates, police coverage in the Methow Valley can be sparse.
The county typically has one deputy assigned to the south county, which stretches from the Malott/Brewster area to Mazama; one in the north county; and two in the mid-valley, said Okanogan County Sheriff Frank Rogers. Towns do their own scheduling and don’t typically coordinate with the sheriff’s deputies.
“It’s a big county — this has happened before. It’s a 25- to 30-minute drive to Brewster,” said Rogers.
Besides the police chief, Twisp has one officer, plus a third in training. The department has a reserve officer from Washington State Parks as back-up, said Hallowell.
“We don’t have the law enforcement in the area that people hope for,” she said. “We do the best we can with the fewest resources we’re allowed.”
Budrow had notified the county sheriff and the Winthrop Marshal’s office about his medical leave, said Hallowell. If people call the Twisp Police directly, Hallowell tries to find somebody who can help, but she too was out on medical leave that day, she said.
In his frustration over the delay in getting a law enforcement officer at the school, Putnam called an officer he knew who — although he was not on duty — came to the school to help.
Sheriff’s deputies don’t handle city complaints, and cities don’t handle episodes in the county, unless there’s a crime in process. “If it’s serious, everybody kind of goes. That’s the nice thing in this county,” said Rogers, noting that even state and U.S. Forest Service officers will respond. “We’re cops 24 hours a day,” he said.
On the other hand, a citizen can’t call an officer directly, said Rogers. The sheriff’s office needs to assign a deputy and know where people are at all times, he said.
While it isn’t required, most officers carry their badge and service weapon when off-duty, said Rogers. Nevertheless, an officer would still call dispatchers to request an officer in uniform to assist, he said.
Eventually, two sheriff’s deputies and an officer from another agency all responded to the school, said Rogers. The sheriff’s deputy arrived about half an hour after the initial call, according to a log of the 911 calls.
School updating emergency plan
This past summer, the school district joined a crisis-management cooperative formed by the North Central Educational Service District. The group has been meeting to review their emergency-response plans, said Venable.
As part of this focus, the Methow Valley district is creating a new emergency-response committee, which will update safety and response plans and establish a practice schedule, said Venable. The new committee “is timely, but not connected to any one particular event,” he said.
Practice drills are currently done “when and where possible,” said Venable. He said the district needs a formal schedule that includes first responders. It would also involve parents so they understand their role and how to obtain additional information.
State law requires districts to conduct at least one safety drill a month, plus three drills for lockdowns, one for shelter-in-place, and three for fire evacuation. Schools must document the date and time of the drills but are not required to report them to anyone.
“If there’s any take-away from this event or last spring [when a student brought a toy cap gun to school], it’s that protocol is important, but it’s also a high priority to effectively communicate,” said Venable.