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Schools add a requirement – lockdown drills

This is only a drill:

Your child will be sitting in class this year, and an “intruder” will enter the school.

The “bad guy” will be walking suspiciously and carrying a weapon. Someone will see him in the school and call for a lockdown. Someone else will call 911.

As thousands of students return to school for a new year, New York State is mandating that schools, which are used to preparing for fires with regular evacuation drills, also prepare for possible violence with expanded emergency response drills.

During these drills, teachers will scramble to get children out of their desks to a safer place in the room, cafeteria workers will lead students away from the lunch tables, secretaries will usher children out of the hall and behind locked doors. Students and staff will barricade doors, and no one will speak until they are released from their hiding spaces by the “good guys” on the other side.

Instead of running 12 fire drills, this year schools will be required to have eight fire drills and four lockdown drills. Each district also is to train every staff member on its emergency response plan, and school safety training must include information on violence prevention and mental health. All the training is to be completed by Sept. 15.

It’s no secret why schools have been ramping up security and why the state is mandating increased preparation.

Mass shootings increase

“We’d be naive to think an incident – when we see Columbine, when we see Sandy Hook – couldn’t happen here in our community,” Orchard Park Police Lt. Patrick Fitzgerald said. “We want to be prepared.”

It has happened in our backyard. It was nearly 42 years ago when an Olean High School student killed three people and wounded 11 more in a sniper attack from the third floor of the school.

More recently, two students killed 12 students and a teacher and wounded 21 others at Columbine High School in Colorado in 1999. The terror continued with the killing of 20 first-graders and six educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut in 2012.

And the horror persists. People are shocked when Fitzgerald tells them there have been more than 100 mass shootings since Sandy Hook.

“One of the first things superintendents are responsible for is children’s safety,” said Lynn M. Fusco, superintendent of Erie 1 Board of Cooperative Educational Services. “If children aren’t safe and feeling safe, it’s a difficult learning environment.”

Many schools have had lockdown drills, as well as the lesser shelter or hold-in-place drills. But there are some new requirements. Hamburg Superintendent Michael R. Cornell said the drills won’t always take place when most students are in classrooms.

“One has to be during an assembly and a lunch period, which is what you would always avoid,” he said.

Schools also have to know their lockout and shelter-in-place drill plans, but the statute does not require them to practice them. Cornell said schools can do them in tandem with the other drills.

The annual safety training required for staff includes violence prevention training, and now must include training in mental health issues, to help staff members identify children who may have some issues, Fusco said.

In addition to locking doors and having a secretary buzz people in after checking a camera trained on the door, many schools are moving to more stringent entry procedures. Renovation projects at some schools have created a double-entry system, where visitors wait in a secure area where their government-issued photo IDs are checked before they are allowed into the main section of the school.

Some districts have scanners at each school where a driver’s license is inserted and a visitor’s badge is printed, using the photo on the license. While the license is being scanned, the name on it is compared with a nationwide database of child sex offenders. The visitor’s badge is “self-expiring” by changing color after a certain length of time, so it can’t be used the next day.

Adding levels of security

Security has expanded beyond having employees wear ID badges at all times, and locking doors during the school day, and it can cost money, although some items can be reimbursed.

Orchard Park’s security budget increased about $300,000 this year. The district bought license scanners, and converted its part-time security monitors during the school day to full-time staffers to provide more continuity.

“There is no specific issue … but you know what has been going on in the world lately,” said Jeffrey R. Petrus, assistant superintendent for business and support services in Orchard Park.

Another big change at Orchard Park this year: Doors are locked 24 hours a day. The district hired U.S. Security Associates to check IDs of people entering schools after hours for sporting and community events. School chaperones still will be present during activities such as concerts and games, as they have in the past, Petrus said.

“This is really an added level. They’re not taking the place of previous employees,” he said.

In the Starpoint Central School District, money was budgeted this year to have a Niagara County sheriff’s deputy serve as a full-time resource officer for the four schools on the district’s Mapleton Road campus, said Superintendent Sean M. Croft.

The district had a full-time resource officer on the campus for a few years during the mid-2000s, but the position was cut in 2008 to save money.

“Now, we have our financial footing underneath us,” Croft said. “We need to have this person here just as a safety measure for the kids.”

Just as improvements have been made in fire safety at schools, changes will continue in security at schools. Drills are a way to practice and to identify potential problems and issues.

Fitzgerald said it’s important to have school staff do things such as making the 911 call during a drill to help build muscle memory.

“We don’t want them to think about what they’re doing, we want them to do it,” he said.

Drill takes 30 minutes

The key to not alarming younger students is the bond they have with their teacher, Fitzgerald said. He recommends that teachers have pre-established quiet activities. And he has other advice, such as having a stockpile of water and granola bars for them. “We know that kids who are hungry and thirsty are going to be more difficult to manage,” he said.

Having police present for the drills gives officers the chance to get familiar with the layout of the school. It also gives children the opportunity to see officers in the school.

The drill ends with someone, ideally in uniform, coming to “rescue” students. At that point the officer can praise the students, particularly younger ones. The entire drill can be done in about 30 minutes, Fitzgerald said.

“Parents trust us with their kids,” he said. “That’s an immense responsibility on the part of schools and police.”

News Staff Reporter Jay Rey contributed to this report. email: bobrien@buffnews.com

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