WISE - Monday's massacre at Virginia Tech. Last year's slaughter of Amish schoolgirls in Pennsylvania. A notorious nationwide list of horrifying events at too many victimized schools stretching back to Columbine.
Can schools ever really be secure havens anymore? Were they ever?
Other than build schools that are windowless bunkers featuring armed guards at steel doors, schools can be made more secure, said Brenda Lee, coordinator of Wise County's Safe and Drug Free Schools program and project director for the school division's federal emergency response and crisis management grant.
"Crisis management is actually not anything new for us," she said. "We've been working on this for several years. Every one of our schools has an emergency plan. They have taken a model plan and adapted it to each individual school. A crisis team and a crisis plan has been in place at every school for years and must be updated annually."
The latest federal grant from the U.S. Department of Education - $90,000 for 18 months beginning with the start of the current school year - has enabled Lee and her cohorts Greg Mullins, who also serves as the division's transportation supervisor, and nurse practitioner Joyce Addington to implement crisis management training for school crisis teams and other staffers throughout the school year.
In fact, just last week Dr. Judy Keith out of Berea, Ky., director of The Renew Center and a nationally recognized expert in school crisis management matters, was brought to Wise County to train front office staff, who Lee said are the first line of defense in every school.
"Our training is heavy on making our crisis plans even better than they are. I think they are quite good, but we are always, always looking for ways to make them better," Lee said.
"We've long had drills, not just fire drills. But drills like lockdowns, evacuations, reverse evacuations to get children back inside quickly. We've asked our crisis teams to meet regularly and invite our community partners (local police, fire and rescue units, hospital workers) to participate. You know we can't totally prevent things, but we want to be prepared as much as possible."
The crisis team at each of Wise County's 16 schools typically consist of principals and/or assistant principals, the school nurse, guidance counselor, some select teachers, school resource officers, and whoever else a school might deem a worthwhile member."We kind of let our schools decide who will be on (the crisis team)," Lee said. "Sometimes the secretaries are on there."The federal grant Lee now implements requires certain personnel, such as administrators and grant task force personnel, to complete four National Incident Management System online courses administered by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.
"Some administrators have completed them all, and some others are working on them," Lee said. "I've done them all. That's been really good because they teach things like having an incident command center, having an alternate center, who is in charge and how all that plays out and so forth. I have learned some things from taking those courses."
The grant will also provide for a few more monitoring systems to be installed in schools, she said.
"We have some cameras in all schools already. But we will be able to provide a few more through this grant," Lee said. When Keith arrived last week to train school secretaries in crisis management, she did not find a school division flat-footed or resting on its security laurels.
"Like the trainer said when she came here, she felt like we were ahead of the game in many ways," Lee said. "We've done this for years, but we want to make things better. We want to have things in place as much as you can possibly do."