Schools plan for the unexpected
March 21, 2006
Prepare for the unexpected is the mantra practiced by law enforcement, firefighters and school officials.
A week after a 14-year-old student opened fire inside a Reno middle school, injuring two of his classmates, school officials here reaffirmed their commitment to crisis management at the South Shore’s 10 campuses.
Whether it’s a fire, gas leak or an armed student on campus, school officials have a strict code on how to handle emergencies. Drills and a subsequent evaluation of them are routine within Lake Tahoe Unified School District, with each site adhering to the Standardized Emergency Management System, designed as a mutual response from law enforcement and fire agencies when an emergency happens.
“We’ve been working with law enforcement and our fire departments on this for about five years and, on a yearly basis, they train our staff at all of our sites,” said Lisa Huard, safe schools coordinator for LTUSD.
Students and staff participate in annual fire and earthquake drills, as well as on how to respond to chemical leaks that may happen away from the schools, but may have plumes of poison gas that could hover over a school site.
There was no better test than the real life situation at Bijou Community School earlier this year. A natural gas leak in the afternoon of Jan. 19 forced the evacuation of more than 400 students from the campus. The students filed orderly and walked to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a block from the school.
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Parents were called and bus drivers were alerted to the situation, with a backup plan of moving the children to South Tahoe Middle School if clergy from the temple were not at the site.
In the event of a violent confrontation at school, officials have been instructed to lock down the school, meaning administrators will contact law enforcement, close the school, lock the doors and secure students in their classrooms. School officials then are instructed to maintain a visual contact of the assailant.
“This is why it is important that we know who is on our campus and where our kids are going when they leave the classroom,” Huard said. She noted that it is imperative that when adults visit the campus, they not only check in at the school office, but check out as well. The reason: If an emergency does happen on campus, visitors will also need to be accounted for, she added.
Even though they hope never to use them, every Douglas County school has a safety manual containing plans for different emergency situations – from lock-down procedures to information on methods of communication.
“I have a manual here (in the school district office) and one at home,” said Superintendent John Soderman. “Depending on the situation, sometimes the students have to leave and sometimes they have to stay put.
“Schools are open places so we have to have plans on how to take care of the kids,” Soderman said.
He said school officials learned a lot from the mercury spill at Pau-Wa-Lu Middle School in January 2004 that closed the school for nearly three weeks until a clean-up could be completed.
After the spill, the school district purchased a phone-dialing system similar to the one used during the shooting at the Reno middle school.
“Incident command is critical so the phone system was a great idea,” he said. “We can reassure thousands of people to let them know what’s going on.
“We have a method of informing throughout the buildings in case of emergency,” he said. “Right now, our phone dialing system is used for snow days.”
Both LTUSD and Douglas County used the phone dialing system last week to alert parents of the snow day. Huard said Lake Tahoe Unified hopes to use the phone system in other scenarios, as a communication device for parents to let them know about their child’s attendance or school conferences.
Soderman said each school site perform shelter and place drills, practice school evacuation and ways to deal with emergency situations.
“It can never be a perfect scenario,” he said. “We never thought we’d have to do these emergency protocols, but they’re a godsend.”
Soderman said the school officials at Pine Middle School looked to be prepared for the situation.
Practicing procedures from their safety manuals kept the situation from being worse than it was.
“Most trauma can be created when people don’t know what they’re doing,” he said. “Those people in Reno looked calm and cool in the TV news but they were probably shaking inside.”
– Record-Courier reporter Sharlene Irete contributed to this report