Schools Hope for the Best, Prepare for Worst

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This article originally appeared on Forest Lake Times. To view the original article, click here.

Safety protocols guide schools through day-of, long-term plans

Following the school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, local school administrators and the county emergency management team are reminded that hoping an active school shooter threat will never happen in the area is not enough: They need detailed plans of action, which they have spent years crafting and are actively updating to ensure the safety of students.

“We always say in emergency management that hope is not a good planning initiative. We have to do more than just hope that day doesn’t come,” said Doug Berglund, Washington County emergency management director. 

Four years ago, Berglund set out to help Washington County school districts establish plans to manage an active shooter threat in a school, organize the long-term recovery process and streamline their safety protocols, even though there is more work to be done. 

“I don’t know that there’s a sense of urgency here, but certainly there’s a need and a moral obligation here. When you know that there’s a gap, we have to do what we can to close it,” Berglund said. 

His mission began once he discovered the I Love U Guys Foundation when he was working on his graduate school thesis about the mental health fallout following a mass shooting. He proposed bringing the organization’s free “standard response protocol” to all of the school districts in the county.

“They sort of have a turnkey approach to integrating this system into your emergency operations plan, and it’s scalable so you can use it for a high school of 3,000 students or an elementary school of 400 students,” Berglund said. 

Forest Lake Area Schools and Lakes International Language Academy saw value in investing their time and manpower to conform to the I Love U Guys recommended protocol. 

“We all hope and pray and lose sleep over the idea that we hope this never happens here. That’s not good enough, we can’t go on hope. We have to be prepared,” Forest Lake Area School District Superintendent Steve Massey said. 

I Love U Guys’ protocol provides schools with universal terminology when managing a school-wide hold, secure, lockdown, evacuation or shelter processes, which have helped tighten the school’s communication beyond an active shooter situation. 

“If I happen to be visiting Scandia Elementary School, and we need to go into a hold, we know exactly what to do at that school,” Forest Lake Area High School Principal Jim Caldwell explained. 

Under the standard response protocol, there are three main types of containment terms: a “hold” prompts students and faculty to stay in their classrooms, a “secure” calls for all exterior doors to be locked to prevent all entry or exits from the building, and a “lockdown” causes all faculty and students to lock classroom doors and hide in place until they are evacuated from the building by first responders. 

“[They are] a more structured approach to the same concept of locking down schools and getting kids in safe spaces,” Massey said.

The Forest Lake school resource officers are the primary touch points who discern and investigate when threats are made to deem whether it’s credible and or not credible. 

“It could be 9 o’clock at night, and social media blows up with something. … The responsibility of the SROs is to come on duty and get working on this, even if it takes them through the night,” Forest Lake police Capt. Greg Weiss said. 

If a determination cannot be made either way, the school district will work with the police department to either determine if classes should be held, and if so, there will be an extra police presence for safety.

These fine-tuned procedures and universal terms are an improvement from before, said Caldwell. Prior to implementing the new protocol, lockdown drill procedures called for district faculty to lock their classrooms and slide red or green cards into the hallway, under classroom doors, to signal whether or not they were safe or in danger to first responders. Unsafe classrooms would be evacuated exclusively. But under that old system, that left communication about the location of students in plain view of suspects.

Under new protocols, first responders will evacuate every individual from any locked down school in the area – without the potentially dangerous card system – to prevent confusion among school faculty and first responders during an active situation. 

“We just want to have a common language and common protocol among all of the area schools and area first responders,” Lakes International Language Academy executive director Shannon Peterson said. 

In the event of an active threat and lockdown of a school, Forest Lake school administrations will immediately contact law enforcement to let them handle the situation.

But school administration also has active, defined roles by communicating with faculty across the district. 

“School officials have specific roles … [to] be in coordination with the command center for the school administrator at the site,” Massey said. That includes notifying parents of the situation.

“Early and frequently is our plan to communicate. So that will be as quickly as possible given the fact that folks are responding to a situation, and [includes] frequent communication and updates,” Massey said. 

Reunification process

But Berglund said that while parents may desire to respond directly to the school in event of a crisis, that could hurt the ongoing response by law enforcement and first responders. 

“If the event ever took place in the district that you’re in, seek information from the district and follow the information provided. In other words: Do not go to the school,” Berglund said.

In the event of an active threat, a school will notify parents of its designated reunification site – which will not be the school facility – where parents can meet up with their students as they are evacuated from a locked-down school.

“Those plans are always evolving, but those are well established plans with a lot of detail and a lot of assignments applied and given to different folks who are responsible for different components of that plan,” Massey explained. 

In practice, police officers, firefighters, emergency medical services, school faculty and mental health professionals will converge at the reunification site to assist as students and parents reconnect. 

Berglund emphasized how the reunification process will be several hours long, and it’ll explicitly require mental health professionals’ assistance as it’ll be a first step to the recovery process of the community. “Our goal is to try to get as many trauma-type counselors as we can. So not just any counselor would serve our purpose, we need somebody that’s experienced in trauma,” he said. 

The district’s already strong connections with local first responders, law enforcement and mental health professionals will help facilitate in the reunification process.  “You make it to this relocation site, and the faces that you see there are the ones that you saw at the planning table for the past three years and the ones that you worked with through that functional exercise. … The benefit is enormous,” Berglund explained. 

Berglund and Weiss’ relationship already formed between school administrators and law enforcement is solid compared to neighboring districts because of how connected and collaborative the two agencies are through SRO involvement.  

“The district and the police department’s relationship is my reassurance that we’re working together to do everything we can possibly do to protect,” Weiss said. 

Although the Forest Lake Area School District has its reunification plans drawn up, it is still about a year away from a full-scale practice involving a few hundred people. 

“Within a year we will do an actual drill on that plan. We just firmly believe … that plans need to be specific, detailed and practiced,” Massey said.

Long-term recovery process

Since all of the school districts in the county function on the same safety protocols, they will be able to aid one another to assist on a long-term recovery team for the impacted school.

“The mental health fallout from an event like this is not really measurable. So from a planning perspective we want to have the ability to keep operations moving forward, and if we have to backfill people from other districts to try and do that, then that’s what we want to do,” Berglund said. 

Even though Berglund thinks Forest Lake is the furthest along in its planning process compared to other school districts in the county, the end goal of cross-district collaboration to aid an impacted school won’t happen until more schools reach this step in their planning processes, which is still a few years away. In the meantime, districts can still hone their personal recovery plans.

“We need to be cognizant of ‘How far does this reach?’ and ‘How long does it go?’ And it’s assumed that the recovery to these events – it takes years,” Berglund said. 

Each school is recommended to partner with mental health organizations who can offer counseling to any student or faculty member when classes resume. The Forest Lake Area School District already has working partnerships with Canvas Health and Lakes Center for Youth and Families. 

“As a result of that, they know our schools, they know our staff in schools, so we’re not making cold calls in those situations introducing ourselves, but calling people that we know and enlisting their support,” Massey said. 

Daily safety measures

The safest way to protect students is to have a school building with no windows, thick metal doors and restrict visitor access, according to a keynote speaker at a conference Peterson attended. 

“There’s a line between ‘Do you want to have your children go to school in a prison?’ because that’s what you’d have to make it to make it 100% safe,” Peterson said. 

The keynote speaker’s point is that no school building will be entirely safe, but implementing visitor check-in points and locking doors can make a difference. 

In order to ensure LILA remains an inviting location that promotes learning, Peterson said the school plans to install RAPTOR check-in technology at front entrances by the start of the upcoming school year, which will do real-time background checks on sex-offender and other chosen databases by the school. 

“It’s just one step that we can take and it’ll make it one more iota safer,” Peterson said. 

Although Forest Lake Area Schools doesn’t have this system, every building requires locked entrances during a school day, requiring visitors to check in at a front office. A school’s ability to lock exterior doors is just as important as interior doors. 

“We do a lot of threat assessment. Every drill is an opportunity for threat assessment as we check which doors are locked and which doors aren’t,” Massey said.

From investigations of the Robb Elementary and Sandy Hook Elementary shootings, locked doors could have made a big difference in the outcome.

The Forest Lake Area School District is aware of the small but crucial impact a lock can have to ensure faculty remain vigilant to daily safety procedures. 

“That’s why we practice, and we practice often, so that teachers get into the mindset that having doors locked at all times … That is something that is part of our system,” Massey said. 

Massey and Peterson said they will continue to attend safety classes to work toward the goal of protecting students.

“Our schools are some of the safest places for kids to be. The partnerships that we have, the relationships that we’ve established, the training that our staff have in addition to the other security measures. … All those different measures provide deep layers of security for kids,” Massey said.