By Peter Becker
The need for school safety drills and plans has heightened in the nation's violent climate of recent times, a far cry from the old norm of fire drills and ducking from the perceived threat of the Cold War's atomic bombs a half a world away.
Dr. Joann Hudak, Assistant Superintendent at Wallenpaupack Area School District, briefed the School Board Jan. 14th on the District's safety protocol, and plans for further preparedness. The mass casualty at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, Dec. 14th, created an opportunity for Wallenpaupack administrators to review the plans already in place and updated over the years.
Large exercises have been held in recent years at Wallenpaupack to allow emergency responders, faculty and administrators to practice. These include a mock bomb incident and a mock shooting. Recognizing their value and the need to continually update themselves, a multi-responder "Code Red" drill is being planned for this March. A mock shooter exercise is tentatively being planned for August.
She commented that the mock shooting exercise held five years ago was the most dramatic that their staff has experienced, and took some time for them to recover.
In their safety plan, emergencies of a mores serious nature are classified as "Code Red" and involve specific instructions for the teachers and other staff. This may involve running with their students to safety or "hunkering down." She added, "We haven't drilled Code Red with the kids. It can be traumatic." Students are taught, however, to listen to their teacher and do what they are told.
Recently added to the plan is "Code Green" which involves emergencies of lesser impact. This might include keeping the children in their classroom while ambulance workers arrive and take away someone in need of medical care, or why drug-sniffing dogs are taken through hallways.
Safety procedures are in place for natural disasters and other emergencies other than related to crime, such as severe weather. There are also regular crises that the District must address. including domestic issues. Hudak said that matters involving child custody cases, particularly in the elementary schools, are increasing.
She highlighted the good relationships that have been fostered with the local State Police, fire departments and other emergency response agencies. Good communication is key, and is being strengthened. Last spring, PA State Police, Blooming Grove, sent 16 newly transferred troopers to the School District to be given tours of the facilities. Local fire companies were recently given a tour of the District's new energy plant.
Not designed for this
Facilities had to be reviewed. Wallenpaupack's schools, she said, were not designed to keep people out. Built in a different era, the schools were made as a welcoming place, with easy access. No more.
Stricter policies are in force, limiting which exterior doors are used. Intercom and monitors are in place. Children are monitored while they are outside. Staff must wear photo identification.
"Our schools were not built like a fortress," she said.
Many other procedures are in place, including numbering outside doors and locking them when school is in session to telephones in place in every classroom.
All of the administrators have been trained and certified with the National Incident Management System (NIMS), which highlights four modes, Prevention, Preparedness, Response and Recovery.
She said they are reviewing what else they can do to improve, and are open to suggestions.
Hudak took a moment to reminisce when she was in school and they had drills for an atomic bomb attack. "We got under our desks and put our hands over our head," she said.