SBR: LFT class practices crisis response with Manhattan emergency responders

By Leah Fliter

KASB’s Leadership for Tomorrow Class of 2018 traveled to Manhattan in July to observe an active violence drill and learn how to lead through crisis. School safety and crisis training will see a heightened focus during the 2018-19 school year as the Kansas State Board of Education develops school safety standards and the State Fire Marshall’s office has announced new requirements for school intruder and lockdown drills.

Manhattan-Ogden USD 383 conducted its 2018 active violence drill at Manhattan High School’s West Campus. Over three days, law enforcement and emergency responders from Riley County Police Department, Manhattan Fire Department, Riley County Emergency Management, Kansas State University Police, Pottawatomie County Sheriff, Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism and the Federal Bureau of Investigation practiced a cooperative response to two hypothetical active shooter situations at MHS-West, which serves 1,200 students in grades 10-12 during the school year. The district’s ninth grade class is housed separately roughly a mile east of MHS-West.

USD 383 Communications and School Safety Director Michele Jones told the LFT class the joint training exercises grew out of years of work by the school district and local first responders to respond to school crises.

“After Sandy Hook, our local first responders came together to talk about how to respond differently and more quickly to active violence situations,” Jones said. “They knew that they needed to work together to get help quickly. They worked together to develop a system of response. And then they needed a place to practice and drill – that’s where our schools come in.”

LFT class members and other observers gathered in the MHS gym before the first exercise, which involved a hypothetical shooter in the school’s large commons area. Police and fire officials briefed the observers not only on what they would witness during the drill but also on the challenges of planning and implementing a cooperative response.

The agencies — each routinely protective of their own jurisdictions and procedures — had to learn how to work as teams to effectively respond to a school shooter scenario. Police officers and firefighters trained for nearly a year to quickly secure the site and provide basic medical care to victims in preparation for EMS treatment and transfer of victims to hospitals.

The first drill featured a “shooter” armed with a realistic but fake automatic weapon bursting into the commons area during the school day. Loud pops rang out as the assailant fired blank rounds at “victims” portrayed by student and staff volunteers. Screams and moans quickly filled the air as the volunteers, wearing startlingly realistic stage-makeup “wounds,” played their parts. After a staged call to 911 summoned help, police officers stormed into the commons area and “took down” the shooter, cuffing him and leaving him “injured”on the floor with a gun-toting officer on guard. Officers methodically checked the area for additional assailants while the victims screamed for help.

After several agonizing minutes that observers said seemed like an hour, police declared the area secure and led in Manhattan firefighters, who are also trained as EMTs. Police and fire worked as teams, the firefighters providing triage assessment and treatment of gunshot wounds as their police officer partners stood armed guard over each patient. The seriously wounded moaned and writhed on the concrete floor; other survivors ran frantically from victim to victim, begging responders for help and adding to the mayhem. Police and fire evaluators observed each scene, critiquing their colleagues’ work.

Processing what was learned

Following a debrief with Jones and emergency officials, the class moved to the district administration office to process what they’d seen.

“In a crisis situation, you will react as you are organized and trained,” KASB Leadership Services Field Specialist Gary Sechrist told the group.

Important decisions on structure, process and leadership must be made before a crisis occurs, Sechrist said, so school officials can take prompt action to reduce collateral damage and move the situation to quicker resolution. Communication is the foundation of any district crisis planning, management and recovery effort, he said.

School district leaders can avoid a communication meltdown by planning, preparing and practicing what they will say and do in a crisis, said KASB Associate Executive Director of Public Relations and Marketing Carol Pitts. She helped the class understand how to prepare for crises, establish a crisis communication team, and understand the cycle of communication. District leaders must identify key audiences, develop key messages and stick to them, keep the communication going throughout the crisis, and use the right tools for each target audience, she said.

Pitts and Advocacy and Outreach Specialist Leah Fliter divided the class into groups that were asked to develop responses to scenarios ranging from a track meet interrupted by severe weather to a shooting in a crowded high school basketball gym. Fliter, playing the role of a news reporter, “interviewed” the groups’ “spokesperson” while Pitts recorded the interview on video. The class critiqued how their colleagues responded to the media questions and bridged key district messages.

Reflecting on the two-day session, class members said communication and practice are key to responding to school crises.

Goddard Assistant Superintendent Julie Cannizzo said school districts have practiced some emergency drills for so long that they’ve become routine.

“How do you train yourself to be as prepared as possible?” Cannizzo asked. “Tornado and fire drills are smooth and non-chaotic now; can we do that with crisis?”

“Our communication has to improve, especially with new requirements for emergency drills,” said Lyons Superintendent Bill Day.

Valley Falls Principal Susan Grey noted that while her district has conducted crisis training, it will have several new employees in 2018-19. “We need to rethink what and how much we know,” she said.

Leadership for Tomorrow Session IV will meet in Wellsville and Wichita in September. Session V will feature Kansas City-area schools in November. The class year will conclude with graduation at KASB’s Annual Convention on Dec. 1.

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