Safety symposium in Lakewood focuses on surviving school shootings

Staff writerNovember 13, 2013 

Since the dawn of the Cold War, school safety programs have been teaching kids to “duck and cover” under their desks in a crisis.

But Russian missiles are no longer the most likely classroom threat.

With a rise in school and campus armed attacks, strategies need to change, says Jesus Villahermosa, a consultant who trains educators in crisis response. He’s also a sergeant with the Pierce County Sheriff’s Department.

He believes in empowering students to run from danger if they can, hide in silence if they can’t, or use other tactics that have helped students survive school killing sprees.

Even elementary school kids can learn these strategies, he says.

“Ninety percent of school shootings happen during passing periods,” he told an audience Wednesday during a school safety symposium in Lakewood. “We have to start training our kids, because you are not going to be there 100 percent of the time.”

Wednesday’s event drew about 75 educators and emergency managers from Washington and Oregon to the campus of Clover Park Technical College. The event was sponsored by Homeland Security Outlook of Connecticut and Eric Holdeman & Associates of Puyallup.

Mary Schoenfeldt, who works with the Everett Office of Emergency Management and also as a private consultant, spoke about what she learned from visiting Newtown, Conn., after the killings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December 2012.

Sandy Hook had prepared for a crisis. Emergency plans were made and practiced. Access was restricted. Still, a gunman was able to force his way inside and kill 26 students and staff.

Schoenfeldt emphasized that schools need to prepare not only for a crisis, but for the aftermath. She said they should have a plan for reuniting parents and kids, and a strategy for intercepting and supporting parents whose children may be seriously injured or dead.

One lesson learned from Sandy Hook: “The volunteer firehouse — maybe a block away — was their designated reunification center. But it was too close.”

Parents should be told before a crisis occurs what the reunification plan is, where to gather and how they will be kept informed.

She stressed the importance of keeping parents informed with accurate information in a crisis. They need to know someone is in control, Schoenfeldt said.

“Stay calm. Provide facts. Don’t speculate,” she said.

Candice Wright, a member of the Long Beach, Calif., Police Department and part of an FBI joint terrorism task force, has worked on school shootings and was involved in responding to the Nov. 1 shooting at Los Angeles International Airport.

She told educators Wednesday that in a crisis they should be prepared to communicate effectively both with parents and with the news media.

“If you don’t give them information, somebody else will,” Wright said.

The conference was held on a day when three Pittsburgh teens were injured in a shooting outside their high school, which led to a lockdown. Police there said the shooting may have been tied to a drug-related fight at the school last month.

Frank Hewins, superintendent of the Franklin Pierce School District and chairman of the Washington State School Safety Advisory Committee, was in the audience Wednesday. His district is using federal grant money to improve safety. But he stressed that state funding is needed to help school districts train employees in new emergency preparedness methods.

“The expectation by the community, rightfully so, is that we should be keeping kids safe,” Hewins said.

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