Study: Rock Hill schools need crisis response training

scetrone@heraldonline.comJanuary 12, 2013 

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    School safety experts will be at Monday’s Rock Hill school board meeting to present results of a district-wide assessment of schools’ safety and security measures.

    The meeting starts at 5:30 p.m. in the board room at the district office, 600 N. Anderson Road. It is open to the public.

Rock Hill schools are better equipped for emergencies than most school systems, but in several ways the district is ill-prepared to react to a crisis with potential for mass casualties, according to a new safety and security audit.

Emergency plans should be beefed up and employees should undergo thorough crisis response training, recommends a 63-page report prepared by the consulting firm Safe Havens International.

Schools also should enact smaller measures – such as locking doors and requiring all employees to wear IDs – to improve safety, the report says.

School systems regularly assess safety precautions and crisis plans to ensure they’re prepared for unexpected calamities such as natural disasters or mass shootings.

But school security has received renewed attention since a gunman shot his way into Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., in December and killed 20 children and six educators.

Rock Hill school officials received the Safe Havens report on Dec. 13 – the day before the Sandy Hook massacre.

Officials already have started addressing some of the issues, said Laney Burris, Rock Hill schools safety and risk management coordinator.

Superintendent Lynn Moody plans to ask the school board to spend more than $2.3 million over three years to comply with the consultant’s recommendations, district records show.

Commissioning the report last spring shows how proactive the district is when it comes to student safety, Moody said.

The projects she proposes include revising emergency plans, securing entrances at seven elementary schools, adding security cameras and upgrading access-control equipment.

“Safety has got to be the number one thing for our staff and students,” school board chairman Jim Vining said.

Vining declined to discuss the report because he had not yet seen it. Burris and a Safe Havens consultant will present a summary to the school board during a public meeting Monday.

The district spent roughly $53,000 for the report, a copy of which was obtained by The Herald.

The firm has conducted similar audits at some 2,000 schools in the past four years, Safe Havens executive director Michael Dorn said.

“In a lot of areas, (Rock Hill schools) were better than a lot of schools we see,” Dorn said. “This is not a district that’s been sitting on its hands.”

The report praises the district for safety measures already in place, including:

• A strong crisis plan with specifics for various departments, evacuation procedures and advice on how teachers can prevent school violence. “The district’s crisis plan is more comprehensive than the majority of the plans we have evaluated.”

• Building administrators are fined for failing to conduct and properly document fire drills. “We were impressed with this approach and have never encountered a client with this measure in place before.”

• Bathrooms have open doorways, which let administrators better hear what’s going on inside, smell cigarette smoke and enter without opening a noisy door.

Security analysts spent months assessing the district’s 27 schools and eight support facilities and found a host of issues that should be addressed, the report says, including:

• While comprehensive, the district’s crisis plans are complex and inconsistent across schools. “Our primary concern is that the manner in which the plans are organized and formatted does not fit with how the human brain works under life-and-death stress.”

The consultants recommend that the district should revise the plans to incorporate a model recommended by the U.S. Department of Education.

• While employees felt “empowered” to make critical decisions if needed, some employees in all schools “are not fully prepared for moderately difficult school crisis situations.”

“Stress tests,” in which employees viewed crisis simulation videos and were scored on how they reacted in the first 30 seconds, revealed that they haven’t been properly trained in the National Incident Management System, considered a template for crisis response. Those employees are at risk of “ineffective decision-making during major catastrophic events.”

Once new plans are in place, employees should be throughly and continuously trained.

• The district should increase its safety and risk management department. Burris alone oversees security strategy, emergency preparedness, risk management, general liability, property and casualty, civil lawsuits and the student insurance program. “Many of the opportunities for improvement we have identified would likely have already been found and corrected if this were not the case.”

• The district should develop a mental health recovery plan to coordinate a platoon of counselors to help schools deal with stress and emotional pain after a catastrophe with mass casualties, such as a school shooting or school bus crash.

• The district’s visitor management system that requires school visitors to check in and have their driver’s licenses or other ID scanned electronically before getting a guest badge is a highly effective deterrent. But “many of the schools allow visitors to sign themselves in, making the system nearly useless. This approach would make it very easy for a dangerous person to bypass the excellent technology that has been purchased.”

• Schools should revise emergency drills and hold more of them.

• Classroom door windows should not be covered, because that creates “inappropriate levels of privacy.”

• Teachers’ and students’ names should be removed from classroom doors, because having them posted makes it easier for intruders to find specific people.

• School staff should be required to wear ID badges at all times on campus. If they don’t, it creates a climate in which employees are hesitant to question visitors not wearing ID.

Burris, who conducts periodic safety audits at schools, is happy with the report.

She said she plans to work with Safe Havens over the next year to implement training programs and revise crisis plans.

“We have to sustain this going forward,” she said. “That’s the key to me.”

Asked whether her understaffed department would be increased, Burris said she doesn’t have the authority to add employees.

“That would be up to the administration,” she said. “My hope would be to receive additional support to make sure all this can happen and to make sure this district can stay as safe as it is and add more safety measures.”

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Shawn Cetrone 803-329-4072

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