Schools across the area tested their emergency preparedness with a joint emergency response simulation on Thursday.
The exercise was carried out in conjunction with local law enforcement and emergency responders in school buildings in Gering and Scottsbluff public schools as well as Educational Service Unit #13.
The simulation was designed and overseen by James Todd, the director of safety and security for Scottsbluff Public Schools.
“We want to test our protocols and see where we stand,” said Todd. “I’m a firm believer that we would rather make our mistakes practicing than we would in real life.”
Bluffs Middle School Principal Jana Mason was confident that practice would prepare her students and staff to respond appropriately in any situation.
“We do a lot of drills that prepare us for lots of different scenarios,” said Mason. “So, our staff is very diligent and they are well prepared for if we needed to evacuate, if we had to move our entire student body into a lockdown, or if it were something where we needed to secure our perimeter.”
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The exact nature of the scenario was kept secret until the drill began to best simulate a true emergency and test whether the schools were truly prepared for anything.
This year’s simulation included a critical twist: the removal of the schools’ principals from the response.
Todd said that this curveball was intended to test how the schools would perform without the leaders who typically take control in cases of emergency.
“This year we used a situation where the principal was taken out of the picture,” said Todd. “Taking that main incident commander from the building and seeing how we run on backups was really what we were trying to get across today.”
Todd said it’s not unlikely that a principal would be out of the building for a meeting or errand when a disaster strikes, and their staff need to be prepared to manage the situation in their absence.
With Mason on the sidelines, BMS ran their students through a lockdown procedure followed by a law enforcement-led evacuation.
Todd said that another important goal for Thursday’s exercise was testing each school’s secondary evacuation sites.
“Do we have access to them, do we have the ability to get to them, are there any logistics we need to be thinking of, are they the right locations for us?” said Todd. “I think testing those capabilities today and getting a couple drills under our belt are all good things.”
Both Todd and Mason expressed how important it was to involve local law enforcement agencies and emergency responders in the exercise.
“I think it’s very crucial. I think it’s important that there’s a common language,” said Mason. “We know their response will be consistent. It’s comforting to know from a school standpoint that we can communicate effectively with law enforcement to make sure we can maintain safety.”
Todd, a former school resource officer, said that the partnership benefited everyone involved.
“It’s great for law enforcement. They’ll be responding to emergencies in our schools when we need them, so getting them into the school environment to practice and know what we’re doing as a school district and give us feedback as to how that aligns with their responses — it’s all valuable information.”
Todd has been involved in safety and security at SPS since 2011, and he is a firm believer that schools have to be prepared for anything.
“Uvalde was a town very similar to Scottsbluff/Gering,” he explained. “Very small, rural area. I’m sure they never thought it was going to happen there. We have to be as prepared as we can be.”
On May 24, 2022, nineteen students and two teachers were fatally shot and many others were injured when a gunman opened fire at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
Examples of worst-case scenarios in the news can be frightening for students, and Mason said that one of her goals is to make her students feel safe at school.
“The last thing we want is for any student to have an emotion of fear or anxiety in our building,” Mason said. “Never are drills intended to incite fear.”
Todd explained that the district has been continuously moving forward in terms of safety and security for many years with a focus on adding layers of security to schools.
“The analogy I’ve always used is that security is like swiss cheese,” said Todd. “Swiss cheese is full of holes, but the more layers you have, the more of those holes you cover.”
School leaders and law enforcement held a debriefing after the exercise at ESU 13 to discuss the results and lessons of the day.
Feedback from the debriefing will be used to keep improving the safety and security of area schools.
“We don’t want to stop progressing,” said Todd. “I think when we stop progressing, we start putting things on the back burner, and that’s when it’s going to come back and bite us.”
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