10/16/06 — Shootings spark talk of safety in schools

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Shootings spark talk of safety in schools

By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 16, 2006 1:45 PM

Local officials say recent tragedies at schools across the country have made them even more vigilant about safety, prevention and procedures in case a shooting ever occurred in Wayne County.

"We try to make sure we have policies and procedures in place," said Ken Derksen, public relations director for Wayne County Public Schools.

That plan includes everything from knowing what to do in case a student is suspected of having a gun to making sure teachers and students know what to do in case a shooting occurs in their school, Derksen said.

In recent years, the school system has devised a crisis management manual, which is updated regularly and revamped as needs change. Abbreviated versions are available in classrooms as well as school offices, with topics ranging from hostage situations and threats of violence to handling a weapon in school or a suspicious package.

And just as fire and tornado drills are part of the school routine, so, too, have lockdown drills.

When schools go into lockdown, said Catherine Eubanks, principal at Eastern Wayne Middle School, it basically means that all the doors at the school and individual classrooms are secured and the lights turned out. A code word is given over the intercom to activate the lockdown and students are instructed to remain quiet. Officials then go around and check the security of the building.

All of the schools periodically hold a lockdown drill, Derksen said. Greenwood Middle did one just last week, he added.

At Brogden Middle School, teachers concerned over the recent shootings requested the Wayne County Sheriff's Office come in and practice a lockdown exercise at the school.

"We have done our own, but they wanted someone from the actual sheriff's department to come in," said Dr. Earl Moore, Brogden principal.

Derksen said the exercise is essential for students in light of the world's current climate.

"We have to make sure our students understand what they're doing so if a situation arises, they'll know where to be and what to do," he said.

Communicating to parents is also important. Informing them of the lockdown procedures and other safety practices not only keeps parents in the loop, but gives them an opportunity to talk with their children.

"It creates discussion," Derksen said. "And it helps parents get involved in the process."

"They need to talk about those things," Mrs. Eubanks said.

The latest tragedies have been overwhelming for students and parents alike, she said. The news of the shootings in Pennsylvania and Colorado, among others, have prompted discussion among students, too, Mrs. Eubanks added.

Students in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes at Eastern Wayne Middle recently met and talked about the wave of shootings in schools, she said. The discussion prompted them to hold moments of silence for students and schools involved.

Another fear inherent at that school, Mrs. Eubanks said, is "that we're so wide open."

At Brogden Middle, Moore said the educators there are responding to the students' concerns by creating as safe an atmosphere as possible.

"My male staff members, during their planning period, they walk around monitoring the campus," he said. "It means they walk through all the buildings."

Moore also does a daily walk-around, he said. And there are personnel assigned to different stations throughout the campus, ensuring that children on buses or being dropped off reach their destinations.

"There's adults in sight of all the buildings and the classrooms," he said. "Staff members are placed in the building hallways as well as in between classes."

Teachers also escort their respective students to and from classes, he added.

Planning for the unexpected means covering a lot of scenarios, Derksen said. Whether it means having a code word or setting up procedures to locate every student in the school, safety is a big responsibility and not one the school system takes lightly.

"With 19,400 students, safety is our top priority," he said. "Parents entrust us with their children. We want parents to feel safe sending their children to our schools."

The school system has a team that meets periodically to discuss concerns and ways to improve safety. In addition to making sure visitors to the schools are properly identified, Derksen said another area being addressed is the access points at each of the schools and determining which doors should be locked during the day.

In the event of an actual emergency, Derksen said the district activates its Honeywell alert system, notifying parents immediately of the situation. When there is sufficient time, letters are sent home providing additional information.

In the meantime, though, he said the school system is attempting to be zealous in its efforts. Superintendent Dr. Steven Taylor met with principals recently to discuss the latest concerns.

"He reinforced the need to be proactive," Derksen said. "Things can happen and we have to be cognizant of our children being at risk."

Mrs. Eubanks said the local officials have been supportive of administrators' and educators' roles in the daily care of students. Some of the measures have long been in place. Now, it's just a matter of putting them into practice, she said.

"We don't anticipate it happening here," Moore said. "But nobody does. This is 'just in case.' It's kind of like wearing a seatbelt, for safety."

Other support systems are also being utilized. From having law enforcement deputies at the schools and school events to routine visits from the Sheriff's Office to ensure schools are safe, officials say they're trying to plan for the unexpected.

"Our hearts go out to every one of those schools (involved in shootings), to those teachers, students and parents," Derksen said. "It just gives us that much more reason to be proactive."