The Sandy Hook school shootings shook the nation, sparking heated debate about firearms. The tragedy also has elected officials calling for schools to review their safety plans. It has also left parents wondering about safety protocols. Sulphur Springs parents are no different; they want to be reassured their children are safe as possible.
Sulphur Springs Independent School District emergency preparedness officer Sherry Chester said the district has an emergency plan that is 60 pages long, with 24 annexes that range in depth from 10 to 30 pages per volume detailing what to do, how to respond and key players; it covers as many potential emergency situations and safety risks which school, community and emergency responders have identified at the district and campus levels.
The emergency preparedness plan is ever expanding and changing as new areas are identified and measures to adjust those areas developed. Annually, a report is presented in January to the school board of changes made to the plan throughout the year, according to Chester.
“It’s not a neat box with a tidy ribbon,” Chester said of school safety. “It impacts every fiber of education. We are charged with keeping children and stuff safe. The plan becomes more comprehensive each day that passes. ... I add to it daily. We do not take it for granted. I personally pray God will give us an edge of protection. Sulphur Springs has been proactive since 2006, making steadfast improvements each year.”
Chester said that over the last six years, SSISD has spent over $3 million on safety upgrades, training and provisions. To help do that, the district has received three federal Secure Our Schools grants from the United States Department of Justice — each requiring a 50/50 match — as well as other grants which have helped secure equipment and training to improve security.
“We have been very steadfast, purposeful, and I believe, very strategic. We are always looking for ways to improve,” Chester said. “We were able to get federal grants no other districts in the state have. Others got funding for Texas roads and government officials. We are honored to do that. Because of them we have things in place others aren’t as able to do. We have a system in place to reduce threats, but there’s always room for improvements.”
The school’s motto concerning safety is “Ready, Set, Respond” — train, arm staff and others with supplies, train and practice. The school’s mission is to protect lives and property, prepare for emergencies and disasters, mitigate effects of a disaster, respond to emergencies promptly and properly, and assist with recovery from disaster.
Some of the upgrades or changes included are readily visible, some not. Many measures have already been taken while at least three are still in progress of being installed or implemented, but are expected to be up and running during the second semester this year.
All exterior doors have been replaced or had new locks put in since 2000. Classes and other rooms all lock from inside the class, so that staff don’t have to step outside the room to lock the door. Spot checks are conducted by Chester and other school staff periodically to make sure doors remain locked as required.
Visitors to schools will notice all campuses — except high school — are completely locked down during the day, restricting entry to the front door and then only after the door is opened by an authorized person who requests the visitor’s name and purpose for being at the campus. The visitor then must enter the office, where they are required to present their driver’s license. Already active on most campuses the ID is swiped through a Raptor system — obtained through grant funding — which is run through a national data base to check against registered sex offender listings. If the person comes back clear, an electronic badge is printed with their name, picture, the date and time of check in and reason for being on the campus. Staff are trained to watch for anyone who is in an area other than where they should be or on campus for a period of time not consistent for their reason to be on the campus.
Every SSISD staff member and employee also has an electronic school ID badge with their photo and name. On the back of each is also a quick checklist of things to do in emergency situations. The badge is specific to the campus and area where the staff work. Badges serve as keyless entry access into the building and rooms needed for each staff, and only those area.
If someone has a badge than theirs or is somewhere they shouldn’t be, other staff should question it and react accordingly. Each badge also can be deactivated at a moment’s notice by administrators too. For instance, if an employee is fired, the name badge is immediately “turned off” remotely so that it is no longer active, denying the person access to buildings he or she previously could enter. This is a precaution to prevent potential situations arising with a disgruntled employee, Chester noted.
Hundreds of cameras are installed throughout the district at strategic points, including neart the front door to monitor the call button, including cameras on school buses. Cameras are monitored by staff and feeds are recorded. Buses also have two way radios for emergency communication too.
Chester said she saw a TV interview with a Dallas ISD principal about security cameras in their district and was surprised to realize SSISD at various locations have two to four times the cameras “in place and monitored” at the campus and district levels.
“This is not to punish good guys, but a means to deter criminal activity. We hope to be so visible no one will want to come in and commit a criminal mischief or other act,” Chester said.
The walkway at the old Sulphur Springs Middle School campus on Bell Street was enclosed over the summer to make it more suitable “for younger students” who have a greater vulnerability than high school students. The corridor is completely enclosed to fully lock it down as an added security measure, Chester said.
Even the front entrance at the new SSMS on Wildcat Way was designed specifically with safety in mind — so that people entering will have to go in through one door to the office for a badge, which slows entry to the main sections of the building without clearance. Another door in the office permits access to the hall.
SSMS does not have lockers and lockers were taken out of SSHS a few years back as a safety measure, too. This prevents illegal or dangerous items from being stored in them.
Each classroom teacher received a “go kit” which contain a whistle, a first aid kit, tarp that if the situation arises can be used as a “shelter,” a place for an emergency class roster as well as contact and emergency information for each student, flashlights, Band-Aids, an emergency vest and other items that could prove useful in emergency situations. The first aid kit also contains a six pocket pack with each containing various items needed and instructions for treatment of potential injury from a minor cut to a very severe injury.
One of the new things that’s been in the works this school year is a call down system, which will alert parents and employees in the event of bad weather, a lock down, train derailment, security situation or any other item requiring quick notification of many people at one time. Parents and staff were asked to fill out forms listing their current contact information so that the system can notify hundreds of people in 2 minutes time via phone call, text or email of situations and how to respond or how it impacts their children. Any parent who hasn’t filled one out is asked to to do. Forms are available on the school website, www.ssisd.net.
“This is to help parents know what to do if, God forbid, a perpetrator enters our school or a weather disaster or other items. It makes them aware of the situation, where and when to go to get their children,” Chester noted.
Also during the second semester, the district will be activating a bullying notification system which will allow students to report if they are fearful or being picked on. They can call to report situations anonymously or specifically. A student can send a text or email for an immediate response.
Those are some of the procedures put in place by the district to make campuses more secure. Of course, Chester notes, that training is vital to any emergency plan. It helps adults and students know how to react in various situations. And, while you can’t completely plan for the “human element” it does provide an added layer of preparedness.
Security teams are established at each campus with a set number of members, each assigned a specific task should an emergency occur. Lock-down, disaster and evacuation drills are to be held at each campus at the discretion of officials at each campus determining which are held when, where and at what time. For instance, SSMS has practiced lock-down drills; students practiced being locked into rooms and taking cover as if a threat was present on campus early in the school year. Three weeks ago, high school had a drill which required evacuation, Chester noted. After each drill, those participating are required to document it.
“Most campuses have had fire drills, some more. They are to have one lock down in the spring, and one with an evacuation. It’s good to do that at the beginning of the school year. Within the first two weeks, even the youngest student understands what [lock-down] is. They know the door is locked, the light is turned off, the go kit, they get in a corner and practice being quiet. They are respectful of it and practice regularly,” Chester said.
Chester said she also conducts “surprise” drills for staff randomly at various campuses featuring numerous simulated safety scenarios she comes up with to practice and keep staff alert and ever vigilant.
Sometimes, those drills include law enforcement, emergency responders and other outside community resources. Other times, they include staff only. During these types of drills, the campus that is drilled isn’t given prior knowledge. These instances are timed and afterward reviewed to denote strengths and weaknesses, which are then addressed, Chester said.
One such scenario involved a reported “disgruntled staff” entering a campus and another a simulated incident in which an armed person reportedly entered the campus after committing a crime. The latter required cooperation on the part of staff and law enforcement to ensure the perpetrator was removed (this drill was conducted prior to the Connecticut killings).
School employees are sent to safety conferences, and at least 40 have been to National Incident Management System (federal) training of the type emergency responders and government entities also attend. Seven administrators are slated two Saturdays in January and one in February to attend Community Emergency Response Team training conducted by Dawn and Craig Morgan, who are over the local chapter of the American Red Cross and have special CERT training.
Audits are conducted by a team of school and community people every three years, but a community team including responders meets regularly to go over safety issues in tabletop discussions. As the emergency plan is updated, plans are reported to emergency responders and agencies so that they too have current and updated information.
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