PINEDALE – In today’s age, every threat at a school is taken seriously. While the chances of a crisis happening at one of Pinedale’s schools might not be high, the school district and Sublette County Sheriff’s Office have been continuously working on the district’s crisis management plan to ensure they’re prepared and using the best practices.
At a community forum Wednesday night, superintendent Jay Harnack and Sheriff K.C. Lehr explained the district’s crisis management plan to parents and other stakeholders.
Before a crisis takes place, however, Harnack noted that in a lot of cases there are warning signs and people speaking up in Pinedale has made a difference in the past.
“If you have a concern, big or small, let the school know,” Harnack said, adding that he would happily spend time investigating a claim that turned out to be false.
If a student doesn’t feel comfortable coming forward and talking to a parent or teacher, they can also use the Safe2Tell app, which is loaded on the district computers, to report concerns anonymously.
If a crisis does occur, however, there are four different protocols that will go into effect, depending on the situation. The emergency response protocols that Sublette County School District No. 1 uses was developed by the “I love U Guys” Foundation, which was created in response to a shooting in Colorado.
“We use it because of its simplicity and its proven effectiveness,” Harnack said.
The most serious protocol is “lockdown,” which would go into place if a threat or hazard was inside a school building, like an active shooter.
In case of a lockdown, students need to get inside a classroom, keep out of sight and maintain silence. The teachers are then responsible for locking the door, turning out the lights, keeping everyone out of sight and taking attendance. They’re then instructed to stay in lockdown until a law enforcement representative or first responder opens the door when the threat is over.
“This increases safety, but delays reunification,” Harnack said. “Our primary responsibility is to protect our students and staff.”
There are two other components in a lockdown, regarding how teachers and sheriff officers act. The school staff also uses ALICE training, which stands for Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate.
Alert and lockdown are similar to the Emergency Response Protocol, requiring people to get out of sight and lock the doors.
The district can then provide real-time updates on the crisis, like where the shooter is, to keep everyone informed. Countering the threat includes barricading the doors, distracting the shooter by throwing objects at them and, the last option, fighting back.
The staff also has some autonomy to leave the building or evacuate, depending on the crisis, if they feel it makes more sense.
The Sublette County Sheriff’s Department, meanwhile, has its own protocol that has evolved over the years. Setting up a perimeter or waiting for a group of three officers to enter the building was protocol in the past, but Columbine and Sandy Hook exposed flaws in those plans.
Now, the sheriff’s officers will act without backup.
“The first person on the scene is going to the threat to eliminate it,” Lehr said.
For parents, they’d unlikely have immediate access to their students after a lockdown, and reunification would be fairly chaotic. The district, however, has stressed safety over convenience in emergencies.
The Emergency Response Protocol also includes three other protocols for different crises, including lockout, evacuate and shelter.
A lockout would go into effect when the threat is outside the school, like a dangerous animal wandering around a playground. During a lockout, students and staff would go on with business as usual.
The shelter protocol would go into effect for a hazardous emergency like a chemical spill, or in case of a severe weather emergency like a tornado. The safety strategy depends on the specific hazard, but the teachers would either evacuate the students to a shelter area, seal the room, get students to high ground or have them drop, cover and hold.
The evacuate protocol would go into effect if students needed to be moved to another location to protect their safety, like if there was a bomb threat. The students would be taken to one of the other school’s campuses in this protocol, and parents wouldn’t be able to access their kids until after they’d been evacuated.
The district is also considering adding a fifth protocol: watch. If added, this protocol would go into effect when there’s a threat that lacks imminence or if its credibility is questioned.
“The goal is to be prepared, but not unnecessarily elevate concerns,” Harnack said.
To communicate with parents during a crisis, the district uses several methods. Blackboard connect, its automated system, will text and email updates. Even if parents opt-out of receiving the automated messages telling them their lunch balance, they’d still receive emergency messages. To get the Blackboard messages, however, parents need to have their phone numbers entered in the PowerSchool student information system.
Facebook is the district’s No. 2 device for getting information out, followed by the district’s website, internal push notifications and press releases, which are mostly detailed follow ups.
The district is also taking some other steps to make its schools safer, but arming teachers isn’t one of them.
“From my experience, bringing guns into schools brings in more danger than it keeps out,” Lehr said.
Safety film is about to cover the windows in the elementary school’s cafeteria. Making sure every door can lock from the inside is another priority, even though the vast majority of doors are already locked most of the time electronically.
Improving safety in outside transitions, like when kids go from the middle school to the high school, is also being looked at by Plan One Architects.
Beginning next year, the schools will also begin conducting active shooter drills every year. These will take place before students begin school.
“The human brain is the most efficient survival mechanism known to man, but only if it’s prepared,” Lehr said. n