Educators learn how to deal with school crisis situations


POSTED: Saturday, September 12, 2009

The setting was tranquil, a ballroom at the lush Koolau Golf Course, but the scenario was horrifying—a student bursting into a high school cafeteria and opening fire.

With the crackle of police dispatches in the air, school administrators play-acted their roles in managing the crisis, trying to protect kids, alert authorities and keep track of the suspect and casualties while fielding an onslaught of phone calls from parents and media.

“;Having gone through something stressful like this, maybe when it happens you'll be able to take a breath and be more methodical about what you're doing,”; Honolulu police Capt. Richard Robinson said after the exercise.

The Oahu School Emergency Readiness Conference this week brought together 550 administrators and staff from public and private schools along with police, fire, emergency medical services, civil defense and health officials. The goal was to help schools prepare to deal with a range of crises, from a roaming gunman to an earthquake, terrorist attack, pandemic or tsunami.

The “;active shooter scenario”; came midway through the day. Although it was all imaginary, with no guns bared, school staff learned that they need to focus on getting accurate information for the first responders, even if it goes against their natural, nurturing instincts.

“;The key is not to focus on the injuries,”; said Daniel Ford, retired Honolulu police lieutenant who specialized in emergency management. “;The key is to focus on the shooters.”;

“;People always fixate on the injuries because you feel like, 'What if that were my kid?'”; he said. “;But the fire and EMS can't come in (to help victims) until the shooter is isolated and/or neutralized. What's the priority? To make the area safe. I need the suspect location, suspect description and what sort of weapons are involved.”;

In the crush of an emergency, that kind of information is hard to come by. Police officer Mike Kahikina put it bluntly: “;If someone came up and punched you in the face, would you be able to describe that person to the police?”; he asked. “;I doubt it. You're going to be angry, emotional. Now take that scenario into the schools. Are you prepared to provide that information to the first responder?”;

Police offered practical tips, such as writing down information on poster paper immediately on the school office wall, so people can see it at a glance and relay suspect description and victim locations efficiently, without interrupting each other.

Principals were encouraged to trade cell phone numbers with their local police district watch commanders and beat officers so they will be able to reach each other, even if the school switchboard gets overloaded.

“;To make schools as safe as possible, the community has to work together,”; said Mark Behrens, safety specialist with the Department of Education's Safety, Secu-rity and Emergency Preparedness Branch. “;It's about building relations with emergency medical services and first responders so you're not meeting people for the first time in an emergency situation.”;

The conference was funded with a grant from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools.

“;One would hope that we'd never have to implement what we're learning today, but if we do, it's best to be prepared,”; said John Field Jr., vice president and treasurer of Punahou School.

Elden Esmeralda, principal of Kapolei High School, suggested that parents resist the impulse to go on campus in crisis situations to collect their children. Schools normally “;lock down,”; keeping kids safe in their classrooms until the coast is clear.

“;Parents don't understand that; they say, 'I'm coming in and getting my kid,'”; Esmeralda said. “;But we need to lock down and make sure everyone's OK before we can let them go.”;