Saturday, October 27, 2012

A Safe School

If we want to transform our school, we need to have a safe school.  We need to assure parents that their children will be safe while they're in our care, and sometimes, it takes a "crisis" for us to reflect and to improve our procedures.

Schools practice emergency drills at least once per month.  Most of the time, we have fire evacuation drills, but we also have lockdown or sheltter-in-place drills as well as school-wide evacuation drills.  Our Safety Committee reviews our procedures and makes revisions to our plans after these drills.  However, a drill is a drill, and we never know what challenges we might encounter in a real-life situation.

This past week, we were placed on lockdown status by the US Army Garrison as a precautionary measure due to a serious phone threat.  Unlike a drill which usually lasts no more than 30 minutes, this lockdown occurred for three hours and it started during the second of three lunch periods.  Additionally, one of our grade levels was on a field trip and would be returning to school shortly.

Fortunately, all of our staff pitched in to assist and provide support.  Although we were never in danger, we are grateful that the US Army Garrison realized the importance of keeping our children safe.  This lockdown provided us with an opportunity to get feedback from staff and to discuss concerns with our school community.

First and foremost, we need to improve our communication system:  the military with the school and the school with the staff and school community.  Thank goodness for social media!  The US Army Garrison continuously posted updates on their Facebook page, and I was able to inform parents through our school Facebook page.  We also used the mass messaging system to let parents know that we were on lockdown status while reassuring them that we would keep their children safe.  We communicated with staff via our phone intercom system; in our busy-ness, we neglected to send staff email updates.  That needs to be improved.

Second, we need to take care of basic needs -- water, food, and yes, even toileting needs.  A three-hour lockdown made us realize that we need to have a plan to ensure that our students have their basic needs met.    Perhaps our PTO can provide water and nonperishable snacks for students to be kept in the classroom in case of an emergency, and yes, a discussion needs to take place regarding restroom needs because there are no toilets in the classrooms.

Third, our school opened in 1959, and because we live in Hawaii , we have buildings which are spread out and open.  This is great because we can take advantage of the tradewinds to keep our buildings "natural" without the need for air conditioning.  However, the openness of our buildings also means that getting students from one place to another during a lockdown is a challenge, and with the windows and doors locked, the temperature in the rooms was sweltering.  We need air circulation in the classrooms, and thankfully, installation of ceiling fans is part of our school-wide renovation plans with completion in about three years.

I was so gratified to read all the parent comments on our Facebook page after the lockdown was lifted.  Most of the comments were positive, and parents were grateful that their children were safe.  Although they were anxious -- after all, we are on a military base and many students have parents who are presently deployed -- parents waited patiently across the street and calmly retrieved their children instead of panicking.

A real-life situation like this is something I wouldn't wish on any school.  However, I know that we will be better-prepared if there is a next time, and hopefully, our lessons learned will help other schools to review and revise their procedures.

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