By Marcy Stamper
A walk-through and comprehensive safety assessment of all school facilities last week was “timely and relevant,” but it wasn’t a response to the February school shooting in Parkland, Florida, said Methow Valley School District Superintendent Tom Venable.
The facility review had already been scheduled as part of the district’s long-range safety planning, which includes updating the district’s emergency operations plan and a quick-reference chart of emergency procedures that’s available in every classroom, said Venable.
While the district has been working on the emergency procedures for a year and a half, the Parkland shooting has underscored the need to be up to date. “It certainly has reinforced for our district why we’re taking this so seriously, and spending time, energy and resources so the students and community feel safe and are prepared to respond to an incident or threat,” said Venable.
“It’s not a comfortable topic, but it’s something that in this day and age we need to understand,” said Mike Dingle, the crisis-management and loss-control specialist for the North Central Educational Service District (NCESD), who conducted the walk-through. “I preach — for lack of a better word — preparedness, not paranoia.”
“We’ve been working hard in the last year and a half with first responders to be sure we’re prepared for a variety of threats, not just active shooters,” said Venable, who noted that the district recently had to evacuate when a fuse was smoldering.
The walk-through — of Methow Valley Elementary and Liberty Bell High Schools on the main campus and the Independent Learning Center and bus garage in Twisp — covered everything from earthquake preparedness to tripping hazards to the ability to lock down the entire campus.
It helped identify places where they may need another camera, or where shrubbery should be trimmed to eliminate hiding places, said Bud Hover, the district’s operations director.
“Our schools need to be a very secure and safe location for our students and staff. But they’re also designed to be open and welcoming. It’s difficult to balance security with an open, welcome feeling,” said Dingle.
With funds from the voter-approved facilities levy, the district has already upgraded security systems on the campus, with an electronic cardlock system at the elementary and high schools that allows administrators to lock the buildings at the touch of a button, said Venable.
The cardlock system can also be programmed so that some staff, such as coaches, can get into the school just at certain times of day. It can also provide a record of who accessed the building, said Hover.
The walk-through and technology upgrades are geared not only toward violent threats, but also to emergencies such as a chemical spill or fire. For example, the district is considering upgrades to the ventilation systems so it can close the air intake in the event of a chemical spill, said Hover.
The district has added security cameras to all buses and is assembling emergency bus kits with food and water, blankets and first-aid supplies.
The district gets help in safety planning from the crisis-management cooperative at the NCESD that it joined a year and a half ago. Fifteen of the 29 districts in the NCESD, including all school districts in Okanogan County, are part of the co-op.
After leading the walk-through last week, Dingle trained district administrators in the LANCE protocol, an emergency-response protocol he developed. LANCE stands for Lockdown or out, Alert (internal notification), Notify (external notification of first responders), Commit (fight), and Evacuate (run and hide).
LANCE is similar to other emergency procedures, but it adds communications to the basic premise of run, hide and fight, said Dingle.
LANCE “will require our students and staff to think critically and act in support of their own safety and the safety of others,” said Venable in a communication sent to all families in the school district after the Parkland shooting.
School staff including administrators, Hover, a custodian, and Twisp Police Chief Paul Budrow also received four days of rapid-responder training last summer from the Federal Emergency Management Agency. The training focused on writing an emergency plan and on clarifying roles and responsibilities in an emergency, said Hover.
Trainings in the LANCE protocol include tabletop exercises, which cover a range of scenarios that add layers of complexity. “We learn to think critically in a crisis-related event and to replace fear with confidence,” said Venable.
This spring, the district will hold trainings adapted for students and community members. The district also plans coordinated active-shooter exercises with first responders in April and May.
All school districts are required to conduct regular drills for lockdown, where people learn to make themselves invisible so that they cannot be seen through doors or windows. Part of the practice includes making sure students understand why the school uses lockdowns so that students remain calm. Once a lockdown is lifted, students and teachers debrief about students’ role, said Venable.
Districts drill for the emergencies they’re most likely to encounter, such as fire, hazardous-materials releases, or even a wild animal on campus, said Dingle.
Emergency operations planning also includes social and emotional threats and digital safety, said Venable. The crisis team includes mental health counselors and social-service providers like Room One.
The district is updating the quick-reference chart so that it includes procedures for threats most likely to be encountered here, such as fires. They’re working with first responders and other districts so everyone uses consistent procedures and language, particularly if someone needs to call dispatch for help, said Venable.
Non-urgent procedures — such as the response to a burglary or harassment — will be moved to other documents so that the flip chart is as concise and useful as possible, said Hover. The emergency-operations plan, which is expected to be completed by the end of the school year or next fall, is considerably more detailed.
The school safety committee has been meeting for the past year to update the emergency plan and flip chart, said Budrow, who serves on the committee.
The old plan didn’t have proper protocols for dealing with risks, said Budrow, whose concerns about safety issues at the schools prompted him to run for school board last year. Although he wasn’t elected to the board, Budrow remains involved in the planning process.
Budrow, who has led trainings across the country about responding to active shooters and other emergencies, noted that procedures differ by jurisdiction. Because some jurisdictions require an officer to wait for back-up from several colleagues before entering a building, it’s not appropriate to second-guess a response, as some have done on learning that a school security officer didn’t respond in Parkland, he said.
While there have been calls from around the United States — including from Pres. Donald Trump — for teachers and staff members to be armed, these situations are highly complex, said Budrow. Republicans in the state Legislature have introduced a bill that would allow school administrators and in some teachers to carry firearms in classrooms (see related story).
Trained police officers have an 80-percent ratio of hitting a target in a non-emergency situation, but that drops to 25 percent in a crisis, said Budrow. In a school, you have a classroom with 30 students, with another classroom on the other side of the wall, said Budrow. “You don’t know where your rounds are going, particularly when you’re stressed out,” he said.
“The Methow Valley School District has made a lot of strides in emergency preparedness,” said Dingle, who said the district had been “very proactive.”