Compliant Isn’t Good Enough: Why Mount Vernon City Schools Goes the Extra Mile with School Safety
Mount Vernon, Ohio is my home. I was born here, graduated here, started a family, and I’ve been employed in the district for 20 years. I began as a maintenance man, but for the past four years, I’ve served as Director of Maintenance. It’s a position I take very seriously.
I take care of any vulnerabilities in the buildings and carry out assessments to identify any hazards at our schools. I make sure the students have a safe, comfortable environment every day. We have over 800,000 square feet, and we maintain it with myself and two other employees. Between the small staff and a minimal budget, we’re stretched thin, but I’m very proud of what we accomplish here.
I feel like I'm responsible for our 400 staff and 4,000 students, and it would kill me if something happened to any of them. This district is my life and I strive to leave it better than I found it.
Going All In
When I first started as the director of maintenance, it felt like the right time to begin exploring new ways to be proactive about our safety. We had systems in place—like every school does—but I knew we could do better. Simply being compliant wasn’t good enough.
Then one day, I stumbled upon a YouTube video for a platform called NaviGate Prepared, which is centered around creating and implementing school safety plans. I was immediately impressed and knew I had to show the superintendent. When he saw the platform, he instantly saw that value of the software as well. He wanted to move quickly with the implementation.
NaviGate Prepared started by sending a team to take 360-degree panoramic photos of all our rooms, to build sitemaps for first responders. That way the officers know which way doors swing, if there's a closet in a particular room, and will show them the layout of each room in the district. There's a toolbar that shows the location of all the emergency shutoff points, Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs), fire extinguishers, fire holes, and the cameras, including the direction they’re pointing. It's pretty neat.
We then had our IT department connect with NaviGate Prepared to give all of our first responders and 9-1-1 dispatcher access to our cameras 24/7. If 9-1-1 is called from one of our buildings, a dispatcher can find Mount Vernon City Schools on their computer and access a drop-down list of our buildings. When they click on a building they can see what our cameras see and can then direct first responders right to the threat. I think every school, if they care about safety, should have a system like this in place.
But I knew to truly make NaviGate Prepared work, everyone had to be on board. To reach the most people, I wanted to start us off with some quick wins. I wanted to build momentum and show our staff what was possible. A great way to start was with fire drills.
Empowering Action, Improving Preparedness
Previously, when we ran fire drills, the teachers all knew it was coming. We would actually just conduct it over the phone. But since NaviGate Prepared plays audio drill scenarios through the app, I can go into a teacher's classroom, play the scenario, and then at the end ask: "What would you do?"
The first time I tried this approach, the teachers freaked out a bit—which is sort of the point. I wanted them to be frazzled when it’s a drill so they’re relaxed during a real fire. After I asked what they should do, they would explain to me what they thought, but were often wrong. Nine out of ten teachers won’t pull the fire alarm because they don't know where it is or they think they're not allowed to use it. We’ve been trained to believe we should never pull a fire alarm, but it’s the right action for them to take.
By teaching our staff outside of a real emergency that it’s the correct thing to do, I’m helping them be ready in a real emergency. The NaviGate app scenarios started off a little rocky, but now I'm getting teachers saying, "I want to do it next month." It’s nice to have turned the tides to this level of excitement. That's the one tool I use quite a bit.
We also heavily use the NaviGate Response app, which is an accountability feature that links with our student enrollment. A teacher can tap their name on the app and it shows all of the students they would have that time of day. They can either click a button that says "Mark all" or manually account for each student. It functions in real time, so if during a fire drill it indicates they’re missing a student, the app notifies the principal immediately. This new process is so different from the old way of writing, taking roll call on paper, and having runners. Our take on safety has been completely modernized.
Upgrading the Digital Toolbox
Another area NaviGate Prepared has streamlined my work is through its Wizard, which helped me write out our Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) by simply answering some questions.
Now, I can take the EOP to every staff meeting and spend ten minutes running through different scenarios that the NaviGate app will generate. These quick safety-focused meetings obviously help our staff become more prepared, but the app helps me because I don’t need to keep thinking up different scenarios. By relying on NaviGate Prepared to come up with the scenarios, I get to ensure we’re ready for a broad range of emergencies.
These constant meetings also ensure everyone on our staff knows they have a role to play in safety. It can’t just be one or two people thinking about emergency preparedness—every person in our district needs to be involved.
Talk of the Town
I feel like we're much more prepared than we were before, but I know we can always do better. With NaviGate, it's been easier to teach our staff about safety because the platform provides the tools. I can explain why we do tests, get organized, and prepared. Our first responders think we're the best in the county. I've even had a police officer who said, "I don't worry about my student now, like I did before." It’s sentiments like that which let me know we’re on the right path.
As we move forward, one thing I'm looking to improve is reunification, as NaviGate launches more features around that. These new features will help us make sure we get the students with their guardian or parent if we have to leave our building to go a reunification site. I’m excited about this idea because I’m sure if we’re at a site after an emergency, things will be very chaotic. I look forward to using a tool that can make the process smoother—even before we need to use it. Every step is about maximizing the safety of our students, staff, and schools. We want to set the standard for safety and preparedness.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Being compliant with the state isn’t good enough. I could just type up an EOP and it's easily approved. There's no actual proof our drills and training actually happened. I tell everyone at our leadership meetings and all the training: We need to be prepared.
I’ve taken this job so seriously over the years because Mount Vernon is home. It always has been and always will be. My work in school safety is my small part in making this district better than it was when I entered it. And in four years, when my grandson enters kindergarten here, I’ll know I can sleep a little easier because of the work we’ve done.