School Safety and Emergency Preparedness

Dec 21, 2012  | 00:28:58  | Ep 4012 | Podcast


Borg: The Newtown, Connecticut school massacre just a week ago is focusing the nation's attention, the world's too, on school safety.  Most schools in America already forbid guns or anything that looks like a gun and schools also restrict, for the most part, and monitor who gets inside.  But leaders and parents too are asking if that is enough.  And we're asking Iowa Homeland Security Administrator Mark Schouten, Aplington-Parkersburg School Superintendent Jon Thompson and former school superintendent, now heading the Iowa Association of School Boards Tom Downs.  All three of you, welcome to Iowa Press.

Thank you.

Borg: And across the Iowa Press table, James Lynch, who writes for the Gazette published in Cedar Rapids and Radio Iowa News Director Kay Henderson.

Henderson: Gentlemen, let's first begin with what your first thoughts were when you heard this news.  Each of you comes at this issue from a different perspective.  I'll start with you, Mr. Schouten.  From a Homeland Security perspective, what were your first thoughts when you heard about this incident?

Schouten: It was a horrific event.  I felt for the parents, felt for the students that saw that happen, the families who have lost these children.  And then I have to admit I wondered if they had a plan and did they exercise their plan?  And did the planning that they did do, did it mitigate or did it lessen the horrific killings that happened?

Henderson: And in the days since what have you come to conclude in that regard?

Schouten: Well, the reports aren't out yet.  I'm sure there will be some pretty detailed reports about what happened, how it happened.  It appears from what I've seen and what people working in our office have seen is that they did have a plan and that plan probably did have a positive effect in lessening the number of deaths.

Henderson: Mr. Downs, what were your first thoughts?

Downs: I think as Mark said, shock and awe were clearly the first reactions.  Oh not again.  Here we go.  My first question was, was this an inside situation?  I just heard school shooting and then when I realized it was elementary and an intruder my thoughts went out to the teachers and the kids, those people who were victims.  The horror of what that community would now live with throughout the next several months and years as we know.  I didn't think about school planning because I'm very confident that schools throughout the country have protocols in place and security measures to protect and do as much as we can to prevent and provide safe environments for kids and staff.

Henderson: Mr. Thompson, what was your perspective?

Thompson: I happened to be sitting with a group of superintendents at a meeting, North Iowa Central Conference superintendents and turned the TV on when we heard about it and just the quiet in the room for the next, I don't know if it was five to ten minutes.  I think that speaks a lot.  Following that meeting I ran back to meet with our administrative team and we have a great plan in place but you start reviewing it, you start discussing it.  The horror and shock was the same as these two gentlemen expressed without a doubt.

Henderson: Did your students have a different level of reaction given the fact that violence had occurred on your school campus?

Thompson: You know, post-trauma we've had experiences that can be fireworks on the Fourth of July, it can be the shootings at the movie theatre and then they go to a movie theatre.  We've had all kinds of post-incident reactions to that.  They're all unpleasant but not so much this time and I think that's a positive.

Borg: We should say based on Kay's question here, I didn't say this in our introduction of you, that the tragedy that she refers to was the shooting of your football coach.

Thompson: Coach Ed Thomas, a wonderful man, was shot in our makeshift weight room back in 2009, June 25th, so that's almost three years, three years plus removed from that.  And it's definitely part of our school daily.

Borg: Why do you say that?

Thompson: Because students have reactions to it just as I mentioned.  We had a young man this year who was having reflections and bad times and that is the importance of the guidance counselor, your at-risk staff to identify that and to meet with them.  So it is reoccurring.  We never know when.  We have college students calling back who are still having emotions and reactions to that and it is a long-term event.

Lynch: All three of you mentioned plans.  Was there a plan in place?  Did the plans help?  How much confidence do you have that schools are taking these school safety plans seriously, that they have a plan in place, they know where it is, they're implementing that plan?  Or is this just one more binder on a shelf somewhere?  Let's start with you Mr. Downs.

Downs: Clearly I know that schools are still the safest place for children.  Statistically we know that kids are safe in school.  I think schools have taken very proactive measures in professional development, staff training, collaborations and partnerships with local law enforcement at the community level but also at the state and even the federal level.  I think they have been very diligent and vigilant about impressing the importance of school security.  So I don't think it's an afterthought or a three-ring notebook on the file cabinet.  I think it's a constant vigilance about the welfare and care of their students.

Lynch: Mr. Schouten, from your perspective, talking about Homeland Security and schools being a part of that?

Schouten: I think your point was a good one.  They may have a plan and we think most schools do.  Often times those plans are on the shelves and they're not taken out, they're not reviewed, they're not exercised.  And so if I had to make a recommendation it would be that the schools take out their plans, they sit down with their emergency management coordinators, they sit down with their first responders and work through the plan to see if it fits.  It may need to be adjusted, may need to be adapted to changes in the school but it is critically important that they exercise, that they practice that plan.

Borg: Is there a way do you think, you're Director of Homeland Security, Administrator of Homeland Security here in the state, to ensure that that actually happens?  Should there be a requirement for schools actually enforced by someone on site who makes sure that those things are in place and they're rehearsed?

Schouten: I think the events of Sandy Hook are enough to provide the incentive for schools here in Iowa to take those plans, review them and coordinate them with first responders.  I'm assuming from what we're hearing from schools that they are taking the initiative and they are working to perfect, review and adapt those plans.

Borg: Mr. Thompson, what did you change after Friday a week ago?

Thompson: We have not changed anything at this point.  Way back in '99 or 2000 I think when Columbine shooting occurred that we heightened our awareness and our plans and we do review them and we do practice them much like you would a fire drill or a bus evacuation drill.  And we're not documenting that at this time and maybe that is a change that could happen.  A fire marshal comes out and checks your recordings of your fire drills, tornado drills.  I think that would be a simple procedure.  County level they are fantastic resources available to schools and the schools up in Butler County are meeting on January 9th to review all of our plans and I think that is important.  And I'd also add that our local law enforcement has actually come into our school after hours and practiced live shooting, live shooter events.  And there's not kids at the time but they're actually looking at the building, the format, places where they could convene, hide, move through the building and I think that's a real positive that I hope we never have to utilize.

Henderson: Mr. Schouten, you're shaking your head?

Schouten: I agree.  I think the training, having your first responders, having your emergency management coordinator as you are doing, he is directing, helping to direct that meeting critically important.  What you don't want to have happen is that you first meet your emergency management coordinator or your law enforcement first responders in the middle of a disaster.  You need to form those relationships before.  Your first responders should know the layout of your school as well as you do so that if they are called to respond quickly they can do so quickly and can do so effectively.

Borg: You said knowing the layout of the school -- Kay, I'll just insert this -- I was speaking with a school superintendent this week who said, that's one thing that we have done in modifying our school environment, we no longer have maps up on the wall showing the different locations of classrooms.

Henderson: As many of our viewers may know the National Rifle Association on Friday morning issued a call for armed cops in every American school in response to this.  As you all know there has been a heightened debate about gun control in this country.  Mr. Downs, do you think that is the right response to what happened at Sandy Hook?

Downs: I've been an educator since 1976 in an eastern Iowa school, a large high school and we had a school resource officer or a police liaison.  I remember in those days he dressed like a teacher.  I don't know if he was armed.  But following that serving as school principal and now as a superintendent here in the metro area of Des Moines but also serving in a school district in Wisconsin every school I've been part of has a rich relationship with a full-time police resource officer in the school.  I was sharing with one of the panel members that in the district I just recently left not only did we have an officer in uniform armed, we had his squad car in front of the building every day that we had kids there.  We wanted people to know there's an officer in that building at this time.  We've had parents and even board members ask, can we afford that kind of expense because it's a shared expense with the city and we used to have that shared expense with the county through a federal grant that, like lots of grants, sunsetted and died out.  But I think there is strong indications to support school resource officers.  I think that heightened security, that command presence if you will, that show of force can't be underestimated in providing a safe environment.

Henderson: Mr. Schouten, as an advisor to Governor Branstad would you suggest that he make that part of his proposal for legislators in 2013?

Schouten: I think if schools can afford school resource officers and if those officers are armed that's a good thing, yes.

Henderson: Mr. Thompson, what are your thoughts on this subject?

Thompson: I would think if they could possibly expand the use of modified allowable growth, which is a local tax largely, local taxpayers could support it with your school boards, maybe some of those dollars could be used for liaison officers, for school resource people, possibly at-risk type staff who could deal with the emotional needs of students as well as the academic needs and connecting to school.  Officers are on call in our community but we do not have a liaison officer.  So yes.

Henderson: We've been talking about armed professionals, as it were, people who are trained to use weapons.  There have been a few who have suggested that teachers and principals and superintendents should be armed.  I don't want to ask for a show of hands --

Borg: Tom Downs is already shaking his head no.

Henderson: Mr. Downs, do you think that that is the answer in this instance?

Downs: I had that conversation last Friday afternoon moments after learning the tragedy when I heard one of our local Des Moines media talking heads suggest that 20% of all teachers should be armed.  And I texted the producer of that station and reminded him that he ought to tell the celebrity that I would see two outcomes of that.  Number one, be more school shootings.  And umber two, there would be more dead teachers.  Teachers focus on instruction.  They are trained as educators.  They're not trained as law enforcement people.  To have more guns in a school whether they are in purses or on the waists of adults I don't believe is in the best interest of securing schools.  No, I would be hugely opposed to any effort to arm educators.

Henderson: Mr. Thompson, there are schools in Texas where there are armed teachers and armed superintendents.  It's part of their culture. 

Thompson: I've never even went hunting so I would not be the right option there.  I'm along with Mr. Downs agree totally against that.  I just think it would lead to more problems than it would solve.

Lynch: We've talked about armed guards or having armed school personnel but should arming personnel in the school be the first step in school safety?  Or are there other steps that can protect the students and teachers from a Sandy Hook situation?

Borg: Mr. Schouten?

Schouten: I would think perhaps the first step is to review the layout of the school, review the safety plan, have your local emergency management coordinator, have your first responders do a walk through, do a vulnerability assessment to see what changes, what tweaks can be made in your layout, what changes can be made in how your doors are locked, which doors are locked.  Do that first and then turn to that second question.

Lynch: Do we need metal detectors at the doors?  Do we need the TSA patting down kids as they come and go from school?

Schouten: I would hope not.

Lynch: Is that workable? 

Downs: No, it's not in keeping with the kind of environment we want to create for kids.  We all know the metal detectors that we all frequent at the airports haven't provided any guarantees.  I remember a parent calling me one time in a district where I was a superintendent after Columbine asking, can you give me a guarantee my student is safe tomorrow?  And I said to her, every guarantee goes out the window when I unlock the door of our schools.  There are no guarantees.  We do our best.  We're vigilant about safety.  But I don't know about you, I don't feel any safer knowing the pilot of the jetliner I'm riding in has a weapon than I did before.  I think we're just more vigilant about the behaviors and the comings and goings of people whether they be in the plane we're flying on or whether they be in our schools or in our parking lots.  And we monitor parking lots in our schools today. We keep an eye on traffic in and out of the building even from the loading dock and the delivery people who come in with typical supplies.

Borg: Mr. Schouten, what are the things in Iowa -- I know that you being President of the Association of School Boards, Mr. Downs, you're going to disagree with the fact that a one size fits all regulation ought to come down on schools because Iowa prides itself on local control, that is local school boards making decisions that affect their school district -- but do you think that is in the best interest, Mr. Schouten, that local groups, local school boards say, what we have is good enough?

Schouten: I think there's, again, I think there's enough incentive now for them to take their plans out and review them.  I would assume that most school boards, after what we've seen happen over this past week, are ready and willing.  They have a commitment to making their schools safer and the resources are around to assist in doing that.  I expect it's going to happen.  Just from what we're hearing in our office, more schools are taking action to review their plans, to improve their plans.

Downs: And I would agree that this past week I've heard from school board members who expressed experiences with parents and their community reaching out just to assure themselves that your school is looking at its plan, there is a plan in place, we've got protocols.  So board members are responsible for communicating that safety message to moms and dads that we're doing everything we can to provide safe and healthy environments for kids.

Henderson: Mr. Thompson, as these schools have a practice run, if you will, for a safety drill, how do you deal with students in such a way that you don't make this a traumatic experience?  Because as Mr. Downs said, schools are some of the safest places that kids can be.  How do you guard against an overreaction that traumatizes the child when maybe they don't need to be traumatized about a situation?

Thompson: I would imagine that for our school district it might be we need to be more cautious about that than some others because we've had an incident in our school.  And you have to weigh the pluses versus the negatives, be on alert I guess for those kids that might have trouble with it.  But it doesn't mean you shouldn’t have those practices.  I think they're too important.  And the other thing that I would add to this discussion is as safe as we can make our schools, it still comes down to education.  Did somebody know something in advance where if they knew that they were able to tell an adult, tell a teacher, tell another student can we tell our kids to stand up for themselves and make these things known?  I think the more we educate our kids and the more we have resources available for them whether that is interventions or at-risk staff I think that's real important too.

Borg: We should say knowing in advance -- that was the case in the tragedy in your school, there was known in advance there was a mental health issue there.  I will just ask, Mr. Downs, should this tragedy also prompt a discussion, if not some action, on the part of whomever, state legislators or schools on mental health and adequate mental health treatment?

Downs: We know that the impact of mental health issues on schools have been tremendous in the past few years.  John's school is a classic example of that.  I was pleased to see the legislature come together this week even before the session to begin talking about what can we begin thinking and discussing as Iowans we can do.

Borg: What should the School Board Association be a part of there?

Downs: I think we need to continue to support the resources within the school for counselors, at risk support staff, mental health professionals and school psychologists.  All of those staff are funded by local dollars.  And as Mark said earlier, if there's funding available at the local district they ought to look at those resources.  But we all know school funding is a huge challenge for the state and for all of us.

Lynch: I want to ask you, as parents we have different sensitivities towards safety for younger children than older children.  As we look at school safety plans does there have to be a different level of safety procedure and planning and implementation say at the elementary level as opposed to middle school and high school?  Do we address those differently?

Schouten: Certainly how you practice them, how you exercise them -- with small children you don't want to do an intruder, you don't want to walk through those scenarios.  With high school students, and I better defer to the superintendents here also, I would assume that the exercises can be different.  One point I do want to make, though, that these school safety plans are not aimed solely at intruders in schools.  They are all hazard plans and so they cover tornadoes, they cover fires, they cover Hazmat spills.  And so you can do the training and do them for some other reason other than an intruder, a shooter in the school and gain the same benefit.

Thompson: It's worth noting too that we've had experience with a tornado as well and the plus to practice, whether you’re a basketball team or a school district, is the more you practice the more you can become reactionary when the time comes up.  You don't have time to look at a list.  And I would think if schools would actively engage in practices whether it's fire drills, lockdowns, bomb threats, when the actual event occurs, and I can speak from experience, you don't have time to look at your notes, it has to be recall so practice doesn't make perfect but it sure helps.

Lynch: How much time do you spend on these sorts of drills?  We've checked off a list of bomb threats, intruders, tornadoes, other lockdowns.  How often do you drill?  How much time do you spend?

Thompson: Twice a semester for fire drills, tornado drills, very minimal beyond that for lockdowns and bomb -- well we don't really practice bomb threats because we don't want that procedure out.  But lockdowns we have practiced in the past, not as frequent, it's not an issue by any means that we're doing it too much.

Lynch: Mr. Thompson, has the mindset at Aplington-Parkersburg changed in the three and a half years since the Coach Thomas shooting when it comes to those drills and knowing what the plans are so that people are ready to react in the unlikely event?

Thompson: I would say the largest mind shift honestly was back in 2000, '99 after Columbine.  That's where there was some large switches to our school security.  Not 100% universally received well by the community.  You're turning your school into a prison and that sort of comment.  Anything we do now, of course it is better received because there's a heightened understanding.  So I guess the answer to your question is yes but it still doesn't feel in our community like it is hanging over us.  It's not an issue but it's heightened.

Schouten: One of the challenges we've had is moms and dads want to know the detail of those plans and as we've been trained we're not to release all the details, the specifics of what we do with an intruder, what we'll do with lockdown because those are not plans and details we'd like to have out to the public.  So it is clearly laying out plans, staff development and demonstration through practice.

Henderson: I'd like to ask the two school officials about this, what happens beyond the school walls and this discussion about our society, video games, those sorts of issues.  What would both of you like to see be uppermost in the minds of parents and society in general in regards to those sorts of issues?  I'll start with Mr. Downs.

Downs: That's a great question.  We've all given thought to what is the culprit here?  Is it mental illness?  Is it gun control?  Is it violence?  Is it just an erosion of culture?  I believe it gets back to communication in relationships, helping moms and dads recognize that their young people are developing, they need to be tuned into what the interests are that their young people have, they need to recognize the model they provide for their children.  I think it's a community issue, it's a church issue, it's a school issue, one that is receiving a lot of attention for sure.

Henderson: Mr. Thompson?

Thompson: And I agree with everything Mr. Downs said.  There's also a connectivity that social media provides and if a student is unable to connect to the school in any other way they do have that option to connect with other kids.  So I guess you could look at that as a positive.  But I believe oversight by parents is the number one thing that needs to take place.  And if parents are tuned into what their child is texting or on Facebook they may be able to alert a school district across the U.S. of a potential problem, possibly a suicide prevention even.

Henderson: Mr. Schouten?

Schouten: I think the FBI would say that 75% of these people who do these shootings have experienced concerns about being bullied and being persecuted, being threatened.  And so in that sense I think we can identify those people.  They feel like they are victims and then like many victims do they end up acting out or perpetrating.  And so I think the Governor's anti-bullying program is a positive step and both the superintendents have indicated to me that they have efforts in their schools or past schools where they have tried to identify those folks that may be bullied, give them the support so they don't later act out.

Borg: Mr. Schouten, Iowa's Education Director Jason Glass, I spoke with this week about this subject and he cautioned against making hasty decisions.  You have twice, if not three times today, used the word incentive, this is going to be an incentive to do this that and the other thing for school boards on school safety.  But he cautioned against hasty action.  How do you reconcile those?

Schouten: I think he's absolutely right.  Anything that a school does now should be considered, it should be done from the standpoint of a team.  They should sit down with their local emergency management coordinator, sit down with their first responders, sit down with our office if they choose and work out some well measured steps on how they are going to deal with a situation like this.

Henderson: Mr. Thompson, we have less than a minute left.  I'm sure other school superintendents have asked you for advice given what you've gone through in your district.  If you could leave those folks with a couple of sentence of your best advice for how to move beyond a situation like this, if you had a chance to talk to the folks at Sandy Hook?

Thompson: Well, number one you do recover.  As hard as that is to see at the time it is going to happen and things will turn bright again.  Maybe not for those 20 families but for the larger community for sure.  And it is a time consuming process.  There's no hasty about it, recovery, and that is being aware of trauma that can develop later, stay the course, stay together and you can actually be stronger afterwards.

Borg: Thank you for those words of encouragement and thank all of you for being here to talk about this very difficult topic today.  We very much appreciate it.

Thank you.

Borg: Well, next week on Iowa Press we're closing 2012.  We're discussing gambling and its future in Iowa.  You'll be hearing Racing and Gaming Commission Chair Jeff Lamberti and Gaming Association President Wes Ehrecke.  Same times, 7:30 Friday night and a second chance to see the show Sunday at noon.  And during this holiday interlude all of us here at Iowa Public Television are wishing you good times with family and friends.  Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year.

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