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Vermont Schools Look For Lessons On Safety And Security

Frank Amato
courtesy, Eagle Times
An officer stands outside Springfield High School on Jan. 29 during a lockdown that was called when there were reports that a student had a gun insidethe building.

You can’t just walk into Springfield High School: There's a camera trained on the front door — which is locked — all part of the school's security plan. And that's just the beginning.

Once you’re inside, visitors have to go to the office and sign in before they go anywhere else in the building.

The administration also makes sure there are regular drills for lockdowns and fires and evacuations, which is standard in Vermont schools these days.

And on an otherwise regular Monday morning in late January, Springfield High School’s typical security protocol was put to the test.

“It was definitely just like a normal day,” Springfield High School 10th-grader Kaylee Warren says. “I was in one of my math classes, and the ‘Get in a lockdown’ announcement went off, so we were all just like, ‘hop in the corner it’s going to be a quick drill.’”

But the lockdown she’s talking about wasn’t a drill at all.

On Jan. 29, one of Warren’s fellow students told an administrator that there might be a kid with a gun in the building.

No one knew that at first, and so Warren and other students were there in the locked classroom, crouched down. Waiting.

“After about like two hours, the police started coming in, and we saw a kid being taken out of the classroom across from us,” says Warren. “And so we were getting a little freaked out."

"It wasn’t that bad at first, but then a couple of kids got upset and started crying, " Warren says, "and that made it a little bit more stressful and worrisome. But after a while, we were up and walking around the classroom, because we were like, freaking out. We didn’t think it as a huge deal until it was.”

School Security
Gov. Phil Scott has asked the Department of Public Safety to do a full assessment of how Vermont schools prepare for emergencies.

State police, county sheriffs and local police are visiting every school in the state — a little more than 400 public and private buildings — to find out what schools are doing right, and where there are gaps.

Vermont has been taking a statewide approach to improving school safety and security since 1999, when a School Crisis Planning Team was formed among educators and public safety officials.

And since then, as the number of mass shootings has increased, the stakes have been raised and Vermont is putting more resources and attention into the issue.

In 2016, the Vermont School Safety Center was established which formalized the partnership between the Agency of Education and Department of Public Safety.

"You can’t give teachers and administrators a lesson plan and say, ‘If you do this you’ll be okay. Some of this is empowering teachers and administrators to make decisions based on what’s going on around them." — Rob Evans, Vermont School Safety Liaison Officer

Rob Evans is Vermont’s school safety liaison officer, and he says the Vermont School Safety Center acts as a central distribution hub for the latest state and federal safety guidelines.

But Evans says the work and recommendations are always changing.

Because when a shooter pulls a fire alarm at a Florida school to get more kids out into the hallway so he can kill them, Evans says it’s important to look at what Vermont schools are doing.

“Each and every time one of these incidents takes place, we have to adapt what we do, because things constantly change in this world,” says Evans. “You can’t give teachers and administrators a lesson plan and say, ‘If you do this you’ll be okay.'"

Some of this is empowering teachers and administrators to make decisions based on what’s going on around them," Evans says. "We have to be flexible with this kind of thing.”

There are some things that schools have to do.

Fire alarms and lockdown drills are required, and every school is supposed to have an emergency preparedness plan.

But when it comes to cameras, and locked front doors, and classroom access; those decisions are made at the local level.

Evans says the statewide assessment that Gov. Scott ordered will give officials a better idea of what Vermont schools are doing to prevent a tragedy.

“Many of these decisions have been left up to individual school boards and school administrators, and rightfully so,” says Evans. “We know what the best practices are, and we want to see which are in place, and where there are gaps around the state.”

What happened at Springfield High School?

The incident at Springfield High is still under investigation, and so specific details are not available.

Springfield School District Superintendent Zach McLaughlin says one student overhead a second student say there was someone inside the school with a gun.

After conducting a few interviews McLaughlin says a decision was made to put the school in lockdown. This means teachers pull all their students into the classroom and then lock the doors and shut off the lights.

People are supposed to remain silent and out of sight, away from windows, and no one is supposed to open a door unless a law enforcement official clearly identifies him-or-herself.

Springfield High School principal Bindy Hathorn says what happened on Jan. 29 turned into a learning experience for everyone.

“When these things happen, glitches and bugs come out and you do the best you can,” she says.

Hathorn was not inside the building when the lockdown was called. She was at a meeting offsite, just like she might be on any other school day.

So right off the bat school administrators had to make some decisions on the fly. And since the event the school has decided to start announcing when it’s a drill and when it’s real.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
A sign greets visitors to Springfield High School informing them they must sign-in at the school's office before entering the rest of the school.

The thinking used to be that schools shouldn’t tell kids it’s a drill, so they react in real time.

But during the lockdown there was confusion, and time lost, while kids, and teachers, tried to figure out what really was going on.

Hathorn says everyone did what they were supposed to do that day. And she knows she might be asking teachers to make life and death decisions in these situations, and there’s no way to fully prepare for that.

“Bottom line, common sense is going to have to come into play because I can’t just give you a script and say, ‘If this happens you’ve got to do X-Y-and-Z,’” says Hathorn. “Because, we know every little event can be different. And by the time you’re trying to do your checklist-y thing, something else has happened. So we’re just trying to, I think, look at it with a human lens.”

But there was one issue — cellphones.

Even with all the training and drills the school did not have a clear cellphone policy.

After a while, some of the teachers did let their students take out their phones and contact parents.

But Springfield High senior Sofia Gulick says that opened up a whole new can of worms, as students, and parents, shared information that didn’t turn out to be accurate.

“The first thing was that we’re in a lockdown because there’s a shooter in the school," she remembers. "And I wasn’t texting too much, because I kind of didn’t want to get into the whole, 'oh my gosh, it’s a shooter, and help spread the rumors.'”

“And the second rumor was that there were apparently two shooters in the school, and that made kids very scared," she continues, "they thought, ‘oh man, now it’s gone from one to two, and who was the second individual?’ And you know, kids were taking photos, and they were texting back and forth.”

A gun wasn’t found in Springfield High that day, and the students got out just a little after regular dismissal time.

Since then there have been debriefs within the school community, and with local law enforcement, and school administrators say they will continue to reassess the steps they are taking to protect everyone who spends time inside the school.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state. 
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