Preparing for the worst

Many local schools taking a closer look at safety

Tribune Chronicle / R. Michael Semple Warren Police School Resource Officer Nicole Coulter, far right, talks with McGuffey PK-8 students, from left, Liam Wheeler, 9, Aniyah Wesley Moore, 9, seated, G. Willis, 11, and Gina Willis, 13. Local schools have taken a closer look at safety following last month’s shooting in Parkland, Fla.

Many local districts and law enforcement officials are reviewing their procedures for responding to a school crisis after the shooting last month in Parkland, Fla. that claimed the lives of 17 students and teachers.

While school safety has always been at the forefront on the minds of school administrators, the shooting infused officials with an urgent desire to go over the plans again, to look for things they might have missed and communicate with first responders, said Steve Chiaro, superintendent of Warren City School District.

At the next meeting of the district’s school board, Chiaro said he intends to recommend the board hire a security consultant to review Warren’s school safety plan and look for ways to improve it.

“I am an educator — a teacher and an administrator — when it comes to the safety and security of students in the district, we need to reach out to those with more information. They have a knowledge, an expertise, that we don’t have,” Chiaro said.

Ensuring a proper response to a crisis in a school requires consistent, ongoing communication between the administration and local first responders, said Hubbard police Chief James Taafe.

“I strongly encourage schools and police departments to be active partners in the development of school safety plans and encourage officers to walk through the schools on a regular basis,” Taafe said.

When officers are walking the halls of the schools — officers in Hubbard have to do it twice per shift — it not only ensures officers are familiar with the school’s layout, but also fosters a positive relationship between officers and students, Taafe said.

All schools are required to conduct a certain number of drills with their students, and the districts are using the drills to identify potential weaknesses in their plans and correct them, said Raymond Solomon, superintendent of Hubbard Exempted Village School District.

Solomon said since the Feb. 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida, he and Taafe have been meeting weekly to work on the plan.

Chiaro said good communication between the district and the Warren City Police Department helped secure a fifth school resource officer for the district ahead of schedule. They plan on bringing on a sixth next year, Chiaro said.

At the Trumbull County 911 Center, Director Ernest Cook began running tests over the last few weeks on the radio systems some Trumbull County schools have that can communicate directly with the 911 center in the event of a school crisis. Instead of dialing 911 in a situation that might not allow it, someone in distress can push an orange panic button on the digital multi-agency radio communication system (MARCS) in the school’s office, and immediately open up a line of communication with the 911 center.

“In light of the recent, tragic events, we’ve decided to start testing the systems on a monthly basis. We do it for tornadoes and other emergencies, we should do it for the kids. I’m a stakeholder in this, I’ve got a kid in school here. We have to do everything we can to prepare if the worst happens,” Cook said. “One of the most important things in a crisis is gathering information. It is key. They realized that in Columbine.”

Not many districts have the radio — five do — even though the state offered the $2,000 systems for free in 2013. Cook said any districts interested in acquiring the technology, which isn’t expensive, can contact him at the 911 center for more information.

“It’s not the end-all solution in a crisis, but it is another tool to have in the schools, a tool that could mean a more rapid response from police and give people inside the school another way to share vital information those responders will need,” said Patty Goldner, administrative supervisor of operations at the 911 center.

Testing the system regularly identifies any kinks that need to be worked out and gets school staff and dispatchers familiar with how it works, Cook said.

Cook also has the school building plans at the fingertips of his dispatchers to ensure they can quickly pull up the information if there is a crisis. About half of the dispatchers have gone through active shooter response training, and he has plans to send the rest through.

“I’m a firm believer in drills and communication. Every district has their own protocols, so the only way to be prepared is to ensure all of the different working parts are talking to each other about their plans, their limits and the tools they do have,” Cook said. “If something were to happen, we will have to adapt. In the fog of war, nothing is ever predictable, things change. But the more training everyone involved has, the better their response will be.”

Cook said another helpful thing a school could do to ensure a fast response in an emergency is to label the windows outside of classrooms with the room numbers, so first responders know where they are going if they aren’t familiar with the school.