Schools evaluate safety measures with Connecticut shootings, lockdown
Morgan County school officials are examining existing and future security measures and also taking steps to improve communications during emergencies.
Their move follows the recent school shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary in Connecticut and a December 17 lockdown of Berkeley Springs High School and Widmyer Elementary.
The school lockdowns resulted from an alleged armed robbery complaint in the area. The complaint was determined to be unfounded during the investigation.
School Superintendent David Banks said that district and individual school safety plans are reviewed annually. It was important now to review all county safety policies and procedures and to have all schools and responders review their safety plans.
They are making sure that school blueprints are updated so that first responders know who is in what classroom. Sometimes classes are moved around, Banks said. Principals have been appraising their school safety plans, including all safety doors and entrances.
They are also convening a January 8 meeting of the county-wide safety council, which consists of school principals, school employees and county law enforcement officials. They’ll be assessing the safety measures that are in place and will be looking at additional measures, Banks said.
Security measures that have already been implemented include safety bollards or a series of vertical barrier posts, visitor sign-in kiosks, mantraps and security cameras. County school buses are also equipped with cameras.
All schools practice safety drills, but drills will now be more frequent. They will also practice for different types of scenarios, he said.
The key is making sure that all school staff knows their responsibilities in an emergency, Banks said.
“That just comes with practice,” he noted.
Banks was very pleased with the school and law enforcement response during the lockdown situation. He noted that every lockdown is different, with the December 17 incident occurring at dismissal time.
Banks met with Sheriff Vince Shambaugh, high school Principal Lance Fox and Widmyer Principal Rick Weber to assess how the school lockdowns went and what could be improved.
Banks said that communication during an emergency is always a challenge. Within a minute of the lockdown, they were getting phone calls at the high school from parents. Students were texting parents from their cell phones that they were locked down.
Banks said that during a school emergency there’s instant panic and parent frustration because with the volume of calls parents get a busy signal. If they get through, the receptionist may not have any further information to tell them.
If a lockdown exists, parents may instantly want to rush to the school to get their child, but that is not advised, Banks said. Police may have the area barricaded and parents will not be allowed inside, he said.
Facebook, county website
To have more immediate notification, the school system now has a Facebook page where they can let parents know there’s a school lockdown or an emergency and that kids are safe. People can have their computers or cell phones set up to get instant alerts, Banks said.
Any emergency announcement will also be instantly updated to the Morgan County Schools website, he said.
In emergencies, school officials use the automated School Messenger call system to alert parents. Calls can be sent to home phones, cell phone or multiple phone numbers.
It takes a while to reach everyone, especially if the system encounters busy signals, Banks said. Some parents didn’t get word of the lockdown through the School Messenger system until their children were already home from school.
Banks said he wouldn’t be communicating in the middle of an emergency, but would do so after the situation was over and everyone was safe.
Banks would either type a message himself or relay one. Assistant Superintendent Joan Willard would relay a message if he was unavailable. It takes 10 to 15 minutes for an announcement to be prepared and sent out.
A message was sent out on Banks’ behalf to all parents in the Berkeley Springs area that afternoon about the reason for the precautionary lockdown. It said that area school buses were in a holding pattern until 3:20 p.m. when the lockdown was lifted, that buses had resumed their normal schedule and that children would be arriving home late.
Chain of command
The chain of command for emergency communications is spelled out in every school district’s safety plan, he noted.
Every school also has to have a single decision-maker in an emergency, which is generally the principal, Banks said. There can be an overlap with police being in charge of the scene and a principal being in charge of school buildings, but that went well in the lockdown, he said.
Banks was certain that state school superintendents would be asking the West Virginia School Building Authority to continue another round of security funding for schools.
“We need more measures in place to belay someone who’s trying to do something harmful at a school,” he said.
Banks was also meeting with local law enforcement officials to discuss additional security plans.