Ep 17: #9 What is your comfort with our schools' plans? - "10 Questions from the Mayor" Series

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Episode 17 #9 What is your comfort with schools' Violent Event and reunification plans?

10 Questions for the Mayor to ask the Police and Fire Chief Series

Question 9: "What is your comfort with our public and private schools' Violent Event procedures and offsite reunification plans?"

Bill Godfrey:

Welcome to our next podcast. We are continuing our series, 10 things for the mayor or the city manager, county manager to ask their police and fire chief together. Today, we're going to talk number nine, what is your comfort with our public and private schools, violent event procedures, and offsite reunification plans. My name is Bill Godfrey. I'm one of the instructors with C3 Pathways and a retired fire chief. And, I'm joined today by Don Tuten, chief with Jacksonville Sheriff's Office. Don's in charge of Homeland Security. Steve Shaw from Chapel Hill, North Carolina, a Sergeant with the police department there, also one of the instructors at C3, as is Don, and Ron Otterbacher, retired division chief from the Orange County Sheriff's office and also one of our C3 instructors. Welcome, guys. Thanks for being here.
So, as we talk about this today, I kind of want to set the stage a little bit. In many states now, public schools are required to not only have emergency plans, but to have reunification plans, which has some interesting bumps in the road as we found out through practice. But, the other one that kind of surprised me a little bit was the situation with private schools. They're not necessarily subject to exactly the same regulations and requirements. I was, my daughter in private school, and I mentioned this in podcast series eight that when I sat down and talked with them about their procedures, there was a little room for improvement.
We've worked on that and closed the gap, and I feel really good about that, but it made me wonder how big of a problem is this, not just with the public schools and the plans they have, but private schools who may have done little or no planning and never really even thought about doing an exercise? Don, tell me a little bit about what you guys do in your region there in North Florida. How do you approach that? What do you see as the things that are common between the public schools, and what's different with the private schools?

Don Tuten:

So, one of the things that we identified was, we got together with our private, or correction, our public school system, which has their own police department and has their own school board. What we did was, we partnered with them to take on that responsibility in our area on the law enforcement side for private schools, so we take care of any issues with the private schools. What we do is we meet with them. We establish contact with them, also with our community affairs, our intelligence unit, and our community affairs unit works very closely with the private schools. We do meet biannually with them. We make sure that everybody's on the same page on what their plans are. We emulate the same plans that the school board system is using, the public school board system is using, but the different challenges are, as we also partner, have a private partnership with churches as well as some of our community affairs folks to ensure that our public bus system is going to work for the private schools if they have an incident there.
So, we basically have a plan in place. We're utilizing some of the same resources that public school program uses, but we're accepting that responsibility within my agency to ensure that that's going to continue to flow. And, we train with them, and we meet with them, like I said, on a biannual basis to ensure that that plan is still in effect and it is practiced.

Bill Godfrey:

So, Steve, obviously Don is from a very large organization. Yours is more common. I don't want to say it's a smaller organization, but it's more of a common size for police departments. What do you guys do in your region? How do you approach it?

Stephen Shaw:

So, we don't have as many resources as what Don has in his area, but one of the things that we do try to incorporate into all of our school response is the SROs that we do have, before the students come back at the end of a summer break, they will meet with all the teachers, and they will basically have a presentation and kind of a walk through. These are the procedures. These are the things that that you need to be thinking about. If we have an event, this is what a lockdown looks like. This is what you can expect from the responders, which is another important piece of that.
Then, as the year progresses, as they have lockdown drills, as they have any kind of bomb threat drills or anything like that that they do throughout the year, we will try to invite patrol officers, investigators, people from other agencies like the neighboring jurisdictions to come and participate in these drills so that they can, A, see the layout of the school, B, see what's happening at that particular school, and kind of interact with some of the teachers and some of the students there. But, that's for public schools. For private schools, this is a little different. We don't have SRO's (School Resource Officer) in private schools, so we have to really take the initiative in our area to reach out to these schools to make sure that they're kind of on the same page as the public schools are, and that the officers are as aware of the private schools as they are the public schools.
So, it creates a little bit of a challenge because some of these schools are ... A lot of times they kind of show up, and we have a new Montessori school in town for example, and we didn't really know that it's coming. It just kind of shows up. So, we have to really make sure that our people that are out on the street, patrol officers, community services people, anybody who's out there is kind of identifying these locations and taking the initiative to reach out to them, introduce themselves. Hey, I'm officer so-and-so. I generally work this area, just want to kind of introduce myself, see what you have going on. And, again, making sure that we're all on the same page as far as what we are telling them our response should look like.

Bill Godfrey:

That's really interesting that you've got your patrol officers kind of going out and making that first contact. Has that produced success for you guys in the area and enabled you to be able to follow up and help, either help them or work with them to get some meaningful plans that have been effective?

Stephen Shaw:

It does help, but again, it's one of those things that's subject to change. A patrol officer's primary function is to answer calls. So, if they don't have time, if they don't have time to introduce themselves, then that gap may go unfilled. So, it's really up to us as an agency. The ones that are there that look at the active shooter instructors, the community services people, the people who are planning these events, the emergency management people in town, they really have to make sure that we're on top of getting in contact with all of these places.

Bill Godfrey:

So, Ron, something Steve mentioned a second ago on, he was using the example of Montessori schools. As you and I have talked offline a few times, there's in some cases with the reunifications, offsite reunifications, some real challenges with age of kids, special needs kids, in some cases infants, daycare centers that are taking care of very, very small children. It's not really just a question of being able to throw them into a vehicle and move them. I mean, you have to worry about things like the car seats, and having the supplies that the kids need, and all that kind of stuff. What are some of your experiences in the work that you've done with schools over the years and some of the exercises that you've picked up on?

Ron Otterbacher:

Absolutely, and it's not just the private schools and Montessori. It's any school, because you have public schools that are heavy with special needs children, and you've got to be prepared for that. It's different than your regular elementary school, because you may need 15 special buses to take them away from there. The other thing you've got to do is, we talk often about off-campus reunification areas, but so many campuses still are unifying their people on campus. So, you've got to get out, and you've got to talk to the schools. You've got to check their plans. We started similar to what they did up in Chapel Hill, but we'd have our SRO’s (School Resource Officer) go review the plans, and if they had any issues or questions, then we'd have staff go and help with that issue. But, there's a lot of things to think about. It's not a simple thing, and until you exercise those plans that they have in place and figure out if they'll work or not, then you may not be successful.

Don Tuten:

I want to say one thing also, just a catalyst on what both of them said is, another opportunity is to have that information with the special needs and any other special challenge schools to put that information within your CAD system and your dispatch system. There's ways with the CAD systems now that you can put that information in so the responding officers, even if it's a newer officer writing that area, that information would come up on the call screen of what those challenges are within that school, how many kids there are, how many are special needs so they can start getting those resources en route as soon as possible.

Bill Godfrey:

I think those are all great points. Ron, in fact I believe you and I were working together when we ran into the school who brought us their reunification plan, which was a great plan that called for the kids to be reunified on their own football field. That was actually where in close proximity to where the shooter had fled. It was interesting. Of course, for those of you that may not know, we certainly endorse and support the I Love U Guys Foundation's standard response protocol and standard reunification method. We've looked at just a myriad of different programs out there, and it hands down, bar none is the best one out there, which is why we use it and teach it and support that method.
But, I know when John-Michael Keyes who's the lead over at the foundation came down to do the training for my daughter's school, one of the interesting conversations is, with public schools there's usually a district or a school board or some sort of downtown office that's going to have personnel that can come out and facilitate the reunification offsite. Whereas with a private school, it's usually just that one campus. I know that was a pretty stunning conversation for the superintendent in my case to realize that it wasn't realistic that his staff was going to be able to go run that reunification site, and that his buses that were in the parking lot of the school weren't going to be leaving, because that was going to be part of what's been shut down, and that he was going to have to find some other community partners to work with, either another school or the local school board or emergency management to actually manage the reunification for them, because they weren't going to be able to do that. Have you seen that be a common issue across the country?

Ron Otterbacher:

Yes, I have, and I think that's why it's so important to exercise your plan, is because although you may have school board downtown, I don't know that in most of the plans I've seen, they called for them to go down and run reunification. Its usually teachers are going to go with the students, and they're going to account for them wherever they go. So, that's why it's important to sit down and discuss it ahead of time. There's no pressure on us today to discuss it. When an incident's happening, the pressure is immense, and we're setting ourselves up for failure if we haven't practiced it.

Bill Godfrey:

I completely agree with you. It's such an important thing to do, even in getting the school principals, and if there is a district office or a school board, getting those representatives to kind of understand what their role is in the incident management of one of these events, that you're not going to just kind of go off and do this separate thing. The kids have to be moved in a secure and safe way. There's going to be security issues at the reunification site that law enforcement is certainly going to be engaged with.
There's accountability issues for the kids, releasing them back. Law enforcement is going to want to interview everybody to figure out who saw what and who knows what. Yeah, custody issues. There's a whole lot of stuff that that goes on with this. So, I think your comment is right on the money, that it's not only important to have these plans, it's important to actually take the time to exercise them and, to some degree, I don't know. Don, wouldn't you even say it's important to some degree include the parents so that they have some idea of what to expect if you're going to do one of these things?

Don Tuten:

Absolutely, and I think that works on several levels. Number one, it gives them the opportunity to understand what is going to take place if an event does happen. So, it pre-educates them on what is to be expected by law enforcement, what is to be expected by the school, as well as what is to be expected of them, the parent when they do arrive at that reunification location. And, some of the question is already answered, so hopefully, and we all hope that this does not continue to happen, and we don't have another event, but hopefully if something does happen, it helps increase their awareness of how safe their children really are when it comes to the reunification process, how professional it is going to be run, and it speeds up the process on getting the kids back.

Ron Otterbacher:

I agree. I think it's important that we bring them into the fold, so they have a knowledge. If they don't, the unknown is what causes fear. If they don't know what's coming about, it's going to increase their anxiety and fear level. By increasing that, it's going to increase the probability that something will go wrong, and there'll be some sort of confrontation. I think the more you can give them, the better they'll be.

Stephen Shaw:

Bringing in the parents, it's just like when we talk about integration with other agencies. I think a lot of it begins with ... We don't need to necessarily wait for a crisis event to practice our reunification. One of the things that we deal with in North Carolina and the South is tornadoes, ice storms. If we have a significant weather event that shuts down a school, we can start to practice some of our reunification methods at the school, let the parents know this is how we're going to get you back together with your kids. It doesn't necessarily have to be an active shooter event for us to start working on some of these methods and ironing out what our issues may be.

Bill Godfrey:

I think these are all great points. So, guys, if I wrap this up and summarize it, our big gaps that we commonly see is a school that doesn't have a plan, or they've got a plan, but there's flawed assumptions in the plan that they're going to use their own campus or use their own people and facilities, don't exercise the plan, and to some degree, we may not have told parents what to expect. Did I miss anything. Ron?

Ron Otterbacher:

The one thing I would add to it is reunification is beyond schools. Businesses need to have plans. Any group of people that are together need to have a plan for reunification if something goes awry.

Bill Godfrey:

Absolutely, absolutely. Gentlemen, I can't thank you enough for taking the time. I hope those listening enjoyed it, and I invite you to come back and listen to our final podcast in this series, which is going to be just an overall summary of what the gaps in our preparedness are and some of the things that we can do about them. Until then, stay safe. We look forward to having you back soon.

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