A year after the Sandy Hook Elementary School shootings in Newtown, Conn., many campuses – including those in Yuma – worked to ramp up their security.
In January, the Arizona Department of Education issued revised minimum requirements for its Emergency Response Plan and recommended that the requirements be adopted by school districts, either in their entirety, or in part to supplement existing strong plans. The last update to the Emergency Response Plan (ERP) was issued by ADE in 2006.
Revisions included requests like streamlining drill requirements and strengthening communication between all parties in the event of a crisis situation.
Sgt. Melinda Alexander, supervisor for the Yuma Police Department's school services unit, said that locally, the process of schools modifying their ERPs has led to an increase in the amount of contact between schools and law enforcement as well as with other agencies throughout the community.
“We’ve really been taking advantage of that and building that partnership, because we don’t want a Sandy Hook situation or any other incident like that to happen here. Could something like that happen here? Sure. It could happen anywhere. But we want to be prepared,” she said.
“Tragedies bring about togetherness, I believe, either in families, communities or with different entities. Unfortunately, sometimes it really takes a tragedy to get there. We’ve always had very good partnerships with the schools; our campuses have been safe. But now we’re looking at different ways, thinking outside the box – how can we keep these schools safer?”
Alexander said that the school services unit began its efforts, along with the Yuma Fire Department, by doing threat assessments of each individual public school in Yuma. This included checking all gates and doors to ensure they met the security demands of the police department as well as the requirements of fire code.
The threat assessments also took into account the layout of campuses to ensure shrubbery and trees were trimmed back so first responders could see into the grounds during an emergency using the CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) approach. The assessments have also included looking at vulnerabilities on the campus, places where fences may need to be placed to prevent campuses from being accessible from multiple points.
The threat assessments were then factored into the modification of each school's ERP, which are held in large binders on each school’s campus and not publicly displayed or shared. YPD, the San Luis Police Department (for San Luis High School) and campus SROs, who are stationed at each middle and high school in Yuma, worked on updating the documents with their school’s administration.
“If we know what their plans are and they know how we’re going to respond during an emergency, it just makes for a safer plan altogether,” Alexander said.
She said that the unit also worked with Yuma County’s Emergency Management Director Tony Badilla to include information in the plan about how other area law enforcement, local fire departments, the Yuma County Health Department, Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, and the Yuma County Area Transit could all contribute to schools in the event of a crisis. Badilla will also be holding training for teams from local schools come January and February, to continue to strengthen partnerships.
Inside the Emergency Response Plan itself, Alexander said, are step-by-step instructions on how the reader should respond to a myriad of incidents like a rabid dog, a hostage situation, a shooting, a gas leak, a flood, an earthquake and an airplane crash – just to name a few.
“We want to make it user-friendly. The emergency response plans that we had from 2006 – they weren’t user friendly. You had to search and look for the information you needed," she said. "We wanted to make it to where anyone could pick up the binder and know what to do.”
In addition to keeping a copy of ERPs, which also includes site specific information, Alexander said that YPD also keeps a “go envelope” for each school containing things like personal contact information for administrators, school maps and keys for specific campuses.
While crisis situations can change by the minute, she said that it is still important to be proactive about planning so that schools and respondors are prepared for all types of incidents. The schools also do this by practicing tabletop exercises with staff and law enforcement as well as by having school-wide mock lockdowns, required at least twice a year, as well as fire and earthquake drills.
Alexander added that all of these measures have been put into place not only to keep children and staff safe, but also to promote what schools are all about – learning.
“If kids feel safe at school, they’re going to learn because they’re not going to worry about who’s walking through the door or what’s happening,” she said. “I know that’s got to be on the back of some kids’ minds because they see the news. They hear about what’s going on.”
Alexander shared that the unit has also been working to further strengthen its relationship with private and charter schools in Yuma, as they are not required by the state to have an ERP in place, but many do.
“We’ve been very busy this last year – we have a lot of schools in Yuma – but it’s sure worth it though. We still have a long ways to go. How can you ever say you’re done? You’re never done,” she said.
In order to keep the plans current, Alexander said that they will be updated throughout the year, for example noting additional training that staff members may receive that could be utilized during an emergency.