Soon after the news broke on Friday about the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., Mercer Island Police Chief Ed Holmes and Mercer Island School District Superintendent Gary Plano were on the phone, talking about safety and security at Island schools.
Plano and Holmes spoke about what happened and what they need to do to further ensure student safety. They met on Monday morning.
Gary Plano, reached by phone on Friday afternoon, reiterated that the schools within the Mercer Island School District already have specific measures in place to deal with a situation similar to what happened in Connecticut or any event that might occur inside or outside each school.
In a press release sent Friday, the school district offered both condolences to the people of Newtown, Conn., and sought to offer reassurance to families of students here.
Plano said that in concert with the police and emergency personnel, the schools often practice and drill for procedures for an incident like the one in Newtown. In the past few years, schools have gone into lockdown if a person with a gun is believed to be within the general vicinity of a school.
According to Plano, the school safety drills are lockdown or modified lockdown procedures. Announcements made by text, email or school intercom set procedures in motion to protect students and staff whether a threat is perceived to be inside the building or not.
Holmes said that lockdowns and modified lockdowns are implemented at any sign of a threat.
“Those threats might include an abandoned or stolen car in the vicinity of a school or reports of shots fired,” he said. “Anytime we think that a situation has a propensity for violence, we act.”
On Monday, after meeting with Plano, Chief Holmes said that the effort now and in the coming weeks will be to look at the mechanics of safety procedures here and look at ways to enhance them.
The procedures include actions that are both straightforward and complex. Exterior doors at schools are locked. Office staff stationed at front offices monitor the main doors. Anyone who wishes to enter the school is directed to check in at the front desk. Online tools are used to alert and inform others.
Holmes noted that an armed, uniformed police officer is deployed full time at the high school with a police car parked in view at the main entrance.
He said that he and the superintendent are in close contact even if there is not an emergency. The schools and police have a partnership, he said.
“We have each other’s cell phone numbers,” he continued. “We talk frequently.”
He said that over the next few weeks, they plan to look again at “how we do business here.”
Police training changed dramatically since the shooting at Columbine High School, where two students shot several students and teachers in 1999, he explained.
“This is something we think about and train for. It is always on our minds,” he said.
The police work in concert with other law enforcement agencies for support during these situations. Mutual aid agreements with other agencies include having maps and layouts of schools and other public facilities.
The Mercer Island Police Department had recently completed Crisis Intervention Team training, he said. It included discussing persons with mental health issues.
Island police are always within just a few short minutes from any school.
Yet, Holmes said that as much as you train and prepare, you cannot prevent or stop every one of these incidents from happening. When police responded to the shooter at the Newtown school, the damage had been done.
He reiterated that everyone needs to be aware of what is happening around them. And if there is something or someone who is not right, tell someone.
He also said that for students, the city’s Youth & Family Services counselors are at each school.
For more information, go to www.mercergov.org.
Tips on talking to kids about tragedies
In the wake of the recent shootings around the country, Youth Eastside Services Executive Director Patti Skelton-McGougan has created a list of tips to help parents when talking to children about this difficult subject.
She says when kids hear stories, they will have fears about it happening to them. She suggests talking with them honestly about what happened, but don’t focus on it. Help older children by planning what to do to stay safe if they are in a dangerous situation.
To see the full list from YES, visit their website at www.youtheastsideservices.org.