School Safety Woes
Admins Pledge Ongoing Improvement
Conducted by Vermont Emergency Management and the Vermont State Police, alongside the Vermont School Safety Center and the Agency of Education, the recently-released 2018 Vermont School Safety Survey gathered data from 98 percent of Vermont’s public schools— and 88 percent of independent schools—reveals a number of flaws in how schools in the Green Mountain State are keeping students safe.
Many of the gaps in safety and security protocols stem from the inability of school administrators to effectively communicate critical details of an emerging crisis on school grounds to students, parents, emergency responders, and even one another.
Specifically, nearly half of schools, 44 percent, have not communicated with parents or guardians about what to do (or not do) during an unfolding emergency.
“If parents/guardians are unaware of how they can support an emergency at the school, they may take actions that hinder [emergency] response,” wrote public safety commissioner Thomas D. Anderson and interim education secretary Heather Bouchey in a memorandum to the governor last month.
Exacerbating this, nearly the same percentage, 46 percent, do not have reliable cell phone reception on campus, cutting off what may be a primary method of communication with emergency responders.
Additionally, 24 percent of the schools surveyed do not have portable radios available that would allow for communication with on-campus staff or arriving first responders.
“School leadership teams must have the ability to communicate with each other to assist in managing a critical incident at their school,” the memorandum to Scott read.
Perhaps the most surprising data point in the survey results was that 70 percent of schools lack the ability to lock classroom doors from the inside, a life-and-death feature that could prevent educators from exposing themselves to harm during a scenario involving an active shooter.
Reaching for Safety
In light of the newly-released results, the Vermont Department of Public Safety and the Department of Education have stepped forward with offers to help schools attain the training, planning, and infrastructure upgrades required to achieve their safety goals.
“The survey results showed further development of school crisis plans is needed to ensure schools are prepared to respond to the wide range of hazards and threats they may be exposed to,” wrote Anderson and Bouchey, pledging to allocate $1 million of Homeland Security grants to achieve those goals.
In the White River Valley, those safety goals weighed heavily on the minds of school administrators when Royalton residents were shocked by the recent murder of Wanda Sanville at her home on Happy Hollow Road, just minutes away from the school.
“We’re really sensitive because we’ve had a shooting in the community,” said South Royalton School Interim Principal Joanne Melanson. “I think that how we approach it makes a big difference with the kids.”
Melanson, who was hired in January after the resignation of former principal Dean Stearns, placed an early emphasis on school safety, issuing a letter to the community after the foiled Fair Haven plot.
“We take this emergency preparedness very seriously,” she wrote. “We remain actively engaged with our local, regional and state partners to ensure they are keenly aware of the robust resources available through the Vermont School Safety Center.”
“We can always improve, we certainly can,” said Melanson on Wednesday morning when asked about the current level of preparedness at South Royalton School, where she oversees approximately 350 students on a day-to-day basis and is currently weighing upgrades to doors, windows, and other security measures.
Of particular concern is the sheer size of the building and the number of people entering and exiting at any given time. Although all exterior doors are locked during business hours, Melanson remains concerned about controlling access to the school’s interior.
“That’s a big concern because there’s a tendency to keep things open and let people in and out,” she said. “That does need to be worked on so that you don’t have multiple doors being opened.”
In addition to installing more secure door locks and window-shading film on the heavily fenestrated front entrance, Melanson is also hoping to get the school fully trained on the ALICE threat response protocol.
ALICE, an options-based system designed to manage ongoing crises, stresses a variety of different pathways to preserving life during an active shooter situation.
The acronym instructs teachers, students, and staff to Alert authorities, Locate the threat, Inform others, Check surroundings, and Evacuate the area if possible.
For Melanson, the potentially life-saving ALICE protocol is a system that requires more preparation than simply locking down the building and learning to when to take cover.
“[ALICE] requires a whole lot of explanation and training and you have to move kind of slowly with that,” said Melanson. “I think Royalton is kind of working with four other districts to do that,” she said, alluding to nascent plans on the part of White River Valley Superintendent Bruce Labs to gather together multiple school administrators for an in-depth training session.
“We’ve been talking about school safety—for six months now—much more than I have in the past,” said Labs in a call late Wednesday. “Boards are conscious of it, principals are thinking about it. That’s why I want to hold a meeting,” said Labs, describing a possible meeting of administrators from “Barre, Orange North, Northfield, Randolph, and White River districts.”
“I’m not surprised that there are things we have to work on,” said Labs of the security holes that appear to be common throughout the state. “It doesn’t make me feel good. I guess the point is that unless I know about them, unless we do the assessments, we can’t fix them.”
For Melanson, the process of securing her school against evolving threats is an endless one of assessing, upgrading, and re-assessing. “It’s a constant work in progress. It’s not a ‘one and done’ thing,” she said. “Kids are our greatest resource and they have to feel like they’re safe.”