Support, Communication, and the Importance of Maps in Rural School Safety Plans
No matter what size the school district or where it is located, communication is always a challenge in planning for moments of crisis, and when responding to moments of crisis. Like other rural school districts all across the US, Jefferson County School District has need-based concerns—ones that bigger, wealthier school districts do not have.
Above and beyond educating students, JCSD has a central role in promoting student wellness, safety, and health. I call it good learning, and it begins with a positive culture. To be sure, a lot of things have to happen before good learning can take place. This goes for all schools, but especially rural ones, and as the Director of Student Services, I spend a lot of my time ensuring this positive culture.
I also chair our District Emergency Response Team; this includes school training and response procedure initiatives. While it is not my primary job responsibility, emergency preparedness is, without a doubt, my most important responsibility.
All Means All: Shared Organizational Accountability
Within the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), there’s a section that says, “All means All,” and on no other front than school safety is a sense of inclusion more important.
This inclusion should not depend on a district’s socioeconomics, or its size, or its location; it begins with a channel of communication between a state and its school districts. Potentialities and risk assessing aside, emergency response procedures begin with organizational accountability. This is especially true with rural districts.
Communication and School Safety: Being a Small Town in a Large County Adds to the Challenge
In rural Tennessee, communication has its limitations, and when it comes to emergency planning, beyond having up-to-date plans, navigating response times, responder capabilities, and who will respond, JCSD’s #1 challenge has always been communication. Communication is critical in emergency situations. That’s why we use NaviGate Prepared and their Respond app to bring all of our resources together.
Within Jefferson County, we have Jefferson City, Dandridge City, Strawberry Plains, and White Pine, each with rural police departments and a chief of police; there is also a community called New Market, which has a police officer. We have a county sheriff, and we have several different volunteer fire departments. Our challenge is which responders are responsible for which schools, and how to get and keep everyone connected.
We have one high school, in the center of the county, with approximately 2300 students in grades 9 to 12 on two different campuses. When school is in session, the city of Dandridge’s population doubles. With little nearby responder support, if we had a major incident, we would need our Jefferson County Sheriff's department to be our major responder—and then work together.
With Respond everything is online; it is a way to share live, ongoing information with administrators and emergency responders. It allows us to “share out” information to emergency responders so that these responders can see our emergency plans and also be able to see our school maps. We are looking forward to utilizing all these communication tools.
Using a smart phone, teachers can respond immediately to administrators. They are able to check from their active current roster who is present and who is missing. The app allows you to input actual real-time information. For example, teacher A can note a student who’s gone to the library; teacher B can add attendance for another class who has a substitute teacher. During the drill, principals can chat with one another within their school, and they can also chat with an individual teacher. An administrator can live chat with every single teacher in the building and at the same time. NaviGate’s Respond App is an amazing way to communicate.
Part of our culture is having the dialogue that we need be alert, and we need to take care of one another. Our individual school and district surveys that look at climate and culture show us time and again that the number one concern parents have is their child’s safety. We also know, too, that we can’t focus on academics and a student’s academic growth until they feel as if they are in a safe environment.
From “Tabletop” to Simulated Drills: How Columbine, Sandy Hook, and Joplin Changed Things
Every school in every area will have its own specific hazards, so even though we have general district emergency response procedures, we also have to train and prepare for the what-ifs specific and predisposed to our environment.
For instance, we have one school that sits next to an interstate, one school near our county jail, and several near a railroad. This particular railway line is a main thoroughfare, so it very likely any given train on any given day could be carrying hazardous materials. Not only would a derailment affect several schools, it would also likely be chemical in nature.
Knowing a hazard obviously helps with planning, but potentialities change with time. If Columbine transformed everyone’s perspective from a broad landscape to the narrow confines of “this could happen here,” Sandy Hook brought a new element: the realization that these sorts of tragedies can happen in elementary schools.
After Sandy Hook, JCSD added School Resource Officers from our Jefferson County Sheriff's Office, into our elementary schools so now each of our schools has an SRO. All of our schools have locked classroom doors and entrances and KNOX-BOX rapid entry systems, where keys allow emergency responders to get into a building.
We choose one school each year for a specific emergency drill exercise to train with emergency responders, be it for weather, chemical release, or active shooter. This includes a “table top,” which is when we bring in all of our emergency responders and a facilitator walks responders and administrators through a simulated emergency drill followed later in the year with a functional, actual implementation of this drill with teachers and students. This gives us, (the school staff, central office staff, transportation staff etc.) a chance to work with our emergency responders.
When we have a live shooter drill, we have people who come in and impersonate shooters, and we have officers coming in and firing blanks in response. Hearing the noise and seeing the fake injured feels real—and it is real to us. All of our response from the district down to the school level is important to us. We try to simulate to the most realistic degree as possible, considering as many eventualities as possible.
I am not new to school safety and have designed several school emergency flip charts for all sorts of emergencies. From creating plans, to practicing them—all the while hoping we never have to implement them. While drills are jarring, we have found that the dialogue that happens during drills tells our student that their school is doing everything we can to keep them safe, and by having our flip charts accessible through NaviGate Prepared, we know we are taking every possible measure available.
Mapping Is a Necessity
Other than the Respond app and having a place to put our emergency plan, the best thing about NaviGate is the mapping they did for us. Make no mistake, maps are costly, but maps that can be used by first responders are too important not to do.
I admit we didn’t see the immediate need to invest in mapping. Maps have been a real challenge for us. We’ve built new schools. We’ve completely renovated our high school. We’ve had new administrators come in and transition to other schools.
Initially we felt like we wouldn’t do this—we wouldn’t invest in mapping. And, yet, the more we looked at it, the more we felt like we had to move forward. It was just too important, because emergency responders can use and share these maps.
The maps are interactive; we’re able to draw out our evacuation plan, certain routes, certain areas to park, and if you need to create a helipad. You can actually see every classroom, every hallway with a 360-degree perspective. No matter how rural or small your school, having vantage points mapped is essential.
Essential: This one word sums up our district’s experience with NaviGate.
It started with having a place to put emergency plans using a new template provided by our Tennessee Department of Education. This mandate has grown to include our communication and mapping. Throughout this journey, NaviGate was responsive and eager to help meet our specific, rural-based challenges. Now, with NaviGate Prepared, I can rest assured that we have done absolutely everything to provide our students the good learning they deserve.