Leader Blues

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

TOP STORY >> Schools prepared for major emergencies

Leader staff report

Emergency management in schools is no longer restricted to knowing what to do if a fire breaks out.
In fact, fires aren’t even on the top of the list anymore for potential dangers to children. But local schools have developed plans for dealing with threats, wherever they come from.
Many of the plans are similar because they come from programs sponsored in part by the Wilber D. Mills Educational Cooperative in Beebe.

Jean Ann Bell, school and community coordinator for Searcy School District, lists the threats by the numbers that would be read over the schools’ speaker systems in her school district to alert teachers to take action without unduly alarming the students: 1, hostage incident; 2, fire; 3, tornado; 4, earthquake; 5, shooting; 6, bomb threat; 7, intruder; 8, chemical spill; 9, suicide; 10, shelter in place, protecting children inside the building; 11, reverse evacuation, getting everyone back in the building.

“We have six schools and each one has a plan crafted just for that school,” Bell said, emphasizing that every teacher has a copy of the color-coded plan and would refer to it in an emergency.
The district still has fire and bus drills to make sure students can get away from a building quickly if necessary, she said.

Last year, the plan was put to a real test, she said, when a chemical spill at Bryce Corpora-tion, which makes bags for potato chips, forced Sidney Deener Elementary to evacuate to a nearby church.
Bell said she has records showing the school district has had an emergency plan since 1993.

Jim Dalton, assistant superintendent for Cabot School District, says Cabot’s written plan isn’t that old, but Cabot does have a history of figuring out how to deal with threats.

In the late 1990s the district had a rash of bomb threats that took emergency workers away from their other duties, took students out of class and made everyone unnerved.

When a call came in, the school would be evacuated. Dalton said he went online to research how to handle a bomb threat and learned that they were doing it wrong.

Students were in more danger crowded into a stadium or while they were leaving the school building, he said.
So officials decided that instead of evacuating, they would lock down the school, and have teachers examine their rooms for objects that didn’t belong there.

Once the lockdowns were started, the bomb threats stopped, he said.
The district also has updated plans for all the other threats as well and teachers know the codes and what to do in an emergency, he said.

Some local churches are part of the plan and would be used as shelter if necessary, he said.
But Cabot is a large district with campuses all over town. So in most cases, if students had to be removed from one campus, they could be sheltered in the activity building of another, he said.
Hal Crisco, assistant superintendent for Beebe School District, said depending upon the situation, Beebe has plans for locking down the campus and plans for evacuating. The plans are closely coordinated with the city’s fire and police departments who also take part in drills.

The district also has two tornado shelters large enough to hold everyone on campus.
Currently, the middle school which was moved to McRae this year, does not have a tornado shelter, but Crisco says the district hopes to secure a grant to help pay for one there.

“I think we’re prepared for just about any type of situation,” said Gerald Tatum, safety and security coordinator for the Pulaski County Special School District.
Each school is required to have its own plan, he said. Each plan is different — what happens in the southeast part of the district may not happen north, he said.
Each year, there is a new plan, Tatum said, because there are different teachers and administrators.
The emergency kit would include an overhead view or map of the campus, a list of emergency assignments, evacuation routes, a traffic control map and other things including water and bandages.
Daisy Bates Elementary is the district school closest to the Pine Bluff Arsenal.

Last school year, coordinating with the office of emergency management, the district practiced an evacuation, calling in buses, loading them with students and driving them around to the front, according to Tatum.
The first buses arrived 15 minutes after the beginning of the exercise — a make-believe explosion at the Arsenal — and within 25 minutes of the exercise’s beginning, all students had been loaded on buses, Tatum said.
“It’s the district’s responsibility to get the drivers headed that way to evacuate,” he said. In a real evacuation, the students would be taken to Clinton Elementary in Sherwood.

Some schools, such as Harris Elementary, Jacksonville Elemen-tary and others, are located near railroad tracks, making them more vulnerable to train wrecks and the resulting spill or escape of dangerous chemicals.
“They need to know whether to shelter in place or get buses and transport,” Tatum said. “We’ve supplied schools with emergency kits and sufficient supplies to shelter students for three or four hours.”
Current attendance records also are important in an evacuation, so that officials and parents can determine if everyone is accounted for.

That’s particularly important in middle or high schools, where students change classes all day.
“When all is said and done, the accountability of where your child is the biggest thing,” Tatum said.
He said enough drivers had cell phones or pagers to assemble a group for an evacuation and that the buses had radios that would allow communication in case an escape route or destination had to be changed on the fly.
“We have traffic-control officers. Every administrator should know how to evacuate the school and we practice alternate routes,” he said.

“We’ve had a crises plan,” said Lonoke Superintendent Sharron Havens.
“We’ve worked with the city police and fire department and people from the Office of Emer-gency Services.”
She said the plan hadn’t been updated this school year, but that the district may look at some alternative evacuation sites.
Currently, if a school had to be evacuated, the students would probably walk or be transported to a different Lonoke school, but if all the schools were under some sort of threat, they would consider go-ing to the National Guard Armory or area churches.
Lonoke schools would host students from the England School District if they had to evacuate because of a mishap at the Pine Bluff Arsenal, where chemical weapons are stored and destroyed.
In the event that buses were needed for an evacuation of the district’s entire student population, buses would have to make two or more trips.

District personnel perform routine fire drills and have a crisis phone tree.
Some of the teachers also attended crisis training last year with the Criminal Justice Institute to know how to react to a bomb threat, an accident, a missing child or a fire or gas leak, as well as an intruder on campus.
“The secretary and staff know who to call, where to go and whet-her to lock down or leave the school,” Havens said.

The only drills practiced are for fire — which would involve leaving the building — and tornado, which would require staying in a secure part of the building, she said.

Leader staff writers John Hofheimer and Joan McCoy contributed to this report.