There’s no copy and paste plan when it comes to keeping schools safe. For law enforcement officers in Henry County, that means encouraging school administration, teachers and students to use their best judgment to run, hide or fight in the event of an active shooter in their building.
After 17 were left dead in the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Fla., on Feb. 14, Community School District superintendents are blowing the dust off their school safety plans and dedicating time to revising their lockdown procedures.
“Any time you have an incident like that it is a reminder that we need to be very vigilant about the safety of our kids,” said John Henriksen, Mt. Pleasant Community School District (MPCSD) Superintendent. “I want to get some procedures in place so the safety of our kids is always in the front of our mind, so our plans are ready to go, and our procedures have been practiced. That’s a commitment we have to make.”
Henriksen said that as a part of their last regular administration team meeting, the staff set a date to review their current emergency plans and make sure they’re exactly what they want them to be.
Henry County Emergency Management Coordinator Walt Jackson said that most schools across the county have reached out to the department. Jackson said they are in the process of working with school districts on proper training when it comes to school emergency procedures.
“We need to, just like we would do a fire drill, tornado drill, in a very deliberate way do the same thing with lockdown and stay put procedures,” Henriksen said.
In a lockdown, all students would be locked into classrooms and would move away from the door and windows. In a stay put scenario, students would remain in their classrooms until the threat had passed, but teachers could continue with their regular instructional routine.
If there were a real emergency, instructions would be relayed by the school’s principal over the intercom.
As the MPCSD reviews their plans, they want to deliberately build in the capacity for students and teachers to make good decisions in case of an emergency. This includes being upfront with students if they were to have a real-life lockdown and being direct in their communication rather than using code words that in the past have caused confusion for students.
Henriksen also plans to involve local law enforcement in the conversation. In fact, they have already reached out to the Mt. Pleasant Police Department Lieutenant Lyle Murray about reviewing emergency plans with the district and organizing safety drills.
“Our measures are to respond as fast as possible as safely as possible as far as law enforcement goes,” Murray said. “Each building and facility and business is totally unique. A blanket statement (on how to stay safe if there were an active shooter) isn’t going to work for every place.”
Another aspect Henriksen recognizes in keeping schools safe is ensuring teachers are aware of students who may be struggling with signs of depression. At the last student improvement advisory meeting, Henriksen said student’s mental health was a topic of discussion.
“The relationships our teachers have with our students and students have with one another is absolutely critical,” Henriksen said. “We don’t want to see anyone falling through the cracks.”
Before Christmas, the teachers in the Mt. Pleasant Middle School and High School worked with a woman who lost her daughter to a murder/suicide incident who goes around speaking to schools about signs of depression. The district also brought in Matt Carver, director of legal services at School Administrators of Iowa, to talk to teachers about the importance of sharing with administration and parents if they have concerns about students.
“We try to be proactive on giving our teachers the resources they need and let them know they can let (a school) counselor or principal know if they see signs a student might need some help,” Henriksen said.
School safety procedures and student’s mental health aren’t new conversations to the district. In fact, they’ve dealt with threats before. Last year, there was at least one occasion at the middle school where someone came to the office with a concern about a threatening message written on the wall of the boy’s bathroom.
In that instance, the school implemented stay put, keeping traffic out of the hallways until authorities looked into the situation and ascertained whether or not it was a credible threat. Henriksen said in his two years as superintendent, he has not had a threat that led to a lockdown in any of the schools.
Over in New London, school district Superintendent Chad Wahls is also working to update their school safety procedures, which he admitted is something the prior superintendent said seriously needed to be worked through.
Since Wahls took the position of superintendent almost two years ago, the district has reached out to law enforcement and found out who their “critical friends” are if there was an emergency. They have identified three categories to keep their students safe if there is a threat: hold in place, shelter in place and active shooter.
Hold in place would be enacted if a student was disruptive in the hallway and was threatening to punch someone, Wahls said. An administrator would make the announcement for teachers to keep their students in the classroom with the doors closed until the threat passed.
Shelter in place would go into effect if there was a bank robbery close-by or something similar happening nearby. “If they feel threatened, maybe they would go to an area where they could take hostages. Students need to be inside, not outdoors,” Wahls said.
For a shelter in place, all exterior doors and windows would be locked, although Wahls added that no exterior doors are unlocked anyway because the teachers have key fobs to get in and out of the building.
If there were an active shooter, New London Community School District (NLCSD) staff is trained to run, hide or fight and encourage their students to do the same. Wahls said they want to create an atmosphere where their students are able to make a choice to use whatever route is best for exiting the building.
“Whenever you can evacuate, evacuate. If we suggest kids go to the right and a kid goes to the left, maybe that kid made a choice because he has a sibling he’s concerned about,” Wahls said. “We want to empower our kids.”
The NLCSD had a training in the fall and plan to have another training this spring to educate teachers, parents and the community about their active shooter drills. Wahls wants to make it a priority to run drills four times a year or every quarter so students are educated on and have practiced the safety procedures. After a drill has been done, he plans on ensuring parents know about it so they will be able to answer their child’s questions in the best way possible.
“We don’t want to put more fear into your child’s life,” Wahls said. “It’s a scary thing to think about, but the tough thing is if something like this happens, there’s going to be casualties and injuries. Talking about this is (an attempt) to minimize everything that could happen.”
As the NLCSD continues to review their safety procedures, they also plan on purchasing more sleeves that go over the arm of a door to better barricade it. The few sleeves they currently have were purchased for them by the Veterans of Foreign Wars (VWF) in New London.
“Research says that an intruder is not going to waste time to get into a door of it is barricaded or locked,” Wahls said. “They’re going to move on. Things like this … have become a numbers game.”
The district also has 45 cameras in their buildings that would be useful in tracking an active shooter, alerting everyone to the intruder’s whereabouts at all times. Although Wahls said that this wouldn’t be helpful to a substitute teacher who might not know the ins and outs of the building, he hopes the students are trained enough to be leaders and take over the situation.
Although Governor Kim Reynolds last week said that conversations about gun-related legislation that would permit arming schoolteachers and staff is a conversation, Wahls doesn’t think that’s a solution.
“Who do you arm? I don’t know,” Wahls said. “Are you then going to have your staff wear uniforms? Because if something does happen and a police officer comes in, how are they going to know it’s a staff member running around with a gun and not an intruder?”
“I’m not going to say I’d be a great shot,” Wahls continued. “I hope we don’t have to get to that point.”
When it comes to arming teachers or school staff, Henriksen agreed with Reynolds that it is a conversation to have. “It’s important local communities have those conversations.”
Henriksen had no further comment.