The new reality of school safety

  • Conant High School principal Brett Blanchard checks a classroom door during a safety procedure drill on Thursday along with Jaffrey police officer Amanda Swanson. Staff photos by Ben Conant

  • Conant High School and Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School held a school safety drill on Friday morning. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Conant High School and Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School held a school safety drill on Friday morning. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Conant High School and Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School held a school safety drill on Friday morning. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Conant High School and Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School held a school safety drill on Friday morning. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Conant High School and Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School held a school safety drill on Friday morning. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

  • Conant High School and Jaffrey-Rindge Middle School held a school safety drill on Friday morning. Staff photo by Ben Conant—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 9/9/2019 4:28:50 PM

When a ConVal student posted a perceived threat on social media last November, it forced district officials and local law enforcement into action.

Despite all the time and resources put into preparing for this exact type of scenario, ConVal Superintendent Kimberly Saunders said she hoped the district never had to use its emergency operations plan. But when they did, Saunders realized all that work translated into an effective management of the situation that included canceling school for a day, turning around buses that had already picked up students and communicating with both local police departments and the school community. But it also allowed for some reflection.

“We looked at what went well, what did we need to do more of, what problems did we come across, what holes in our plan did we see and how can we fix them,” Saunders said.

The top priority for any school is the safety of everyone inside, so any threat – credible or not – has to be taken serious.

“We have to take them at face value. The days of being able to interpret are gone,” Saunders said.

It used to be that schools performed drills that would teach students and school personnel what to do in the event there was a fire in the school. There was a time when that was the worst case scenario when it came to school safety. That’s no longer the case.

Now schools must prepare and train to react in the event someone enters the school or is already in the school, and is a threat to everyone inside. It’s why the 10 drills required of every school each year aren’t just for fires anymore. There are now ones that teach students and school personnel what to do if someone brings a firearm inside the school.

“Safety can’t be an add on. It can’t be an afterthought,” said Conant Assistant Principal Michelle Durand.

But there’s a balance between being prepared and causing students and staff to feel on edge and unsafe. Students need to feel secure in order to focus on learning, but at the same time know what to do if anything were to ever happen.

“How can we increase the safety of our students and staff and balance that with being a warm and nurturing environment,” Saunders said. “You have to create an environment for someone to feel safe.”

The shooting at Columbine in April of 1999 put the term “school shooting” on the map. In the last 20 years, since 13 people were killed at the Colorado high school, there have been an alarming number of incidents at schools all over the country where firearms have been used. The deadlier ones in Parkland, Florida and Newtown, Connecticut garner most of the attention, but there are a lot more.

ConVal

When Anthony Wheeler, who was accused of posting a picture on Snapchat featuring another ConVal High School student, holding a gun in each hand, with the caption, “Don’t go to school wednesday” it quickly caught the attention of students, parents, police and school officials.

It was after the shooting in Parkland in February of 2018, in which 17 students and staff were killed, that Saunders said they started working with local police to enhance their training. It also led to an even deeper look at the district’s emergency operations plan, which Saunders said is reviewed and revised at least once a year. But when there is an incident at another school around the country, it provides an opportunity for even further inspection of the plan. 

“When we see any kind of tragedy around the country, we look at it and see how would we have handled that,” Saunders said. “What lessons can we glean and apply to our district and our students.”

With about 3,000 people in the district’s high school, two middle schools and eight elementary schools at any given time, there needs to be consistency to ensure that everyone is on the same page and knows how to react.

Safety measures are constantly being looked at and improved. Cameras have been added, buzzer systems installed and a more open line of communication is an ongoing topic of discussion. Saunders said that within the last three years they’ve gone from a district where people could walk into a school at any time to now they require a school badge to unlock the door or be allowed in by a staff member.

Saunders said ConVal enlists a three-pronged approach: Creating a safe environment through emergency response planning, ensuring facility safety and security and supporting students’ social, emotional, and behavioral growth.

Conant

Conant Principal Brett Blanchard said that he never thought about someone walking into his high school with a gun when he was a student. Now “the idea of violence is every day.”

Blanchard wants his students to be vigilant and they rely on the model of “see something, hear something, say something.” And it also comes down to preparing the students to survive should something take place.

“What we’re teaching them is to be independent thinkers,” Blanchard said.

Over the final six months of last school year, Durand focused on the school’s emergency operations plan and how to improve it to the point where they’re ready to react. 

“It’s building that constant awareness,” Durand said. “You need to be thinking to figure out what to do next, so we started planning for what else we could do.”

The sobering reality is that this is an issue that will never go away.

“It will never ever stop. You’ll always have to react and be proactive,” Blanchard said. “I’d rather spend zero time on it, but that world is gone.”

They rely on the feedback of the students and staff after drills. It helps students feel connected with the school, feel involved, empowered and gives them a sense of belonging.

Conant had it’s own situation last year when a student made a comment about harming another and the district has learned from what happened and how they reacted. It’s a constant learning process.

Last fall, Blanchard had the entry way into the high school rearranged so that no one can get into the school without first walking into the main office, after being buzzed in.

Training

As part of the training process, ConVal district staff are trained in ALICE, an active shooter civilian response program. Antrim Police Officer John Giffin is a certified trainer in the program.

Local police chiefs got together and began the task of training all the staff in what to do in the event of an active shooter. Saunders said the training will eventually reach the student level, but so far it has been focused on the staff.

Giffin said that the amount of time from when a shooting begins and ends is somewhere in the vicinity of three to seven minutes. While he embraces his training responsibilities, Giffin realizes that “unfortunately we have to talk about these things.”

As part of the ALICE program, the faculty have been trained how to keep everyone safe.

“It gives you tools you can use to help yourself,” Giffin said. “It gives you five different things you can do during those three to seven minutes.”

There are specific scenarios played out and discussed and then reviewed to see what still needs to be worked on.

As part of Durand’s review last year, she entered into a partnership with Blue-U, which is led by former local police officer Terry Choate and part-time Jaffrey officer Joe Hileman. Blue -U have done safety presentations with staff and parent training, but most importantly they have been in the school for drills with the students and staff.

“They’ve gone through a variety of scenarios,” Blanchard said.

The drills range from evacuation to a rally point, shelter in place to steps to how to secure a classroom or area of the school.

Reviews

School districts review and update their emergency operations plan annually and submit them to the Department of Education and Department of Homeland Security.

They receive feedback and can then take their planning another step further.

“It’s something we’re looking at with fresh eyes every year,” Saunders said.

It leads to a lot of discussions, but fosters communication and collaboration that in the end will hopefully have everything in place if a situation were to arise.

“It’s an amazing amount of work, but the more work you do, the more things will blossom,” Durand said.

Outlook

Ask any school official and they’ll tell you the same thing: They wish they didn’t have to dedicate all this time to a what if. But there’s no second guessing how important it is.

The top priority of every school is to provide a place where students can learn freely and become independent thinkers. There’s just an extra layer these days to making sure it can happen in the safest environment possible.


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