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Friday, 15 May 2015 10:10

Practice Makes Perfect

By | Education

Schools and County Prepare for Worst Case Scenarios

BALLSTON SPA — On a perfect blue May day, a school bell rang and over the loudspeakers a voice floated across a still playground and quiet fields, “This is a lockdown. The school is under lockdown.”

A couple dozen guests, most from other schools in the region, silently observed as drill leaders prepared for the next steps in the evacuation drill of a school-shooting scenario which took place Friday, May 8, at Gordon Creek Elementary School, involving all three elementary schools on the Wood Road complex  of the Ballston Spa Central School District. 

[Photo caption: Ballston Spa Central School District Superintendent Joseph P. Dragone, Ph.D., is taken to the drill command center. Staff photo.]

A communicator crackled, and another voice was heard saying “Buses on route, do you copy?”  A few minutes later, the communicator informed law enforcement that there was a single victim with a gunshot wound to the abdomen, and there was one shooter inside. Within minutes, several emergency and law enforcement vehicles arrived, and the onlookers watched as the Saratoga County Sheriff’s Department special operations team jumped out of a truck and into action.  Shouts were heard from inside the school building as they entered with a medical professional under their protection, calling “Clear, clear, clear.”

There was an eerie quality to the level of reality in the safety exercise.  The observers watched as a female “victim”, (Tina Knapp, a cleaner in the school who volunteered for the role) was carried out of the building and into a waiting emergency vehicle with quick and silent efficiency. On one side of the complex, 2,000 students and staff who attend Gordon Creek Elementary School, Milton Terrace North Elementary School and Wood Road Elementary School were being evacuated  to safety off-site, and on the other side a helicopter was landing to take the “victim” to a trauma care medical facility. 

According to school officials, just planning in detail for an emergency evacuation of three schools has already provided district staff and local emergency responders with improved protocols and communication after examining the many logistics involved with safely relocating approximately 2,000 students and staff. 

Although this particular scenario drilled for an armed intruder, the lessons learned that Friday morning  are part of emergency management planning to prepare for a multitude of conditions including security or safety threats; severe weather issues; or unexpected facility conditions, like loss of power, that would require the district to evacuate buildings and transport students to meet their parents at secure remote locations. 

In New York State, all public schools, including BOCES, charter schools, and county vocation education and extension boards, must develop, review, and annually update school safety plans at the district and building level.  As a result of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999, New York State passed the Safe Schools Against Violence in Education (SAVE) Act of 2000  to assure there would be plans in place to define how each school district and all the buildings in the district would respond to acts of violence and other disasters through prevention, intervention, emergency response and management. 

“It shouldn’t take an incident like that to plan and practice for the safety of our school students and personnel,” said Ballston Spa Central School District Superintendent Joseph P. Dragone, Ph.D. “This drill with its super inter-agency coordination helps prepare us for anything – weather incidents and potential hazards from rail incidents. The safety and security of students and staff are and will always remain a top priority for the school district.”

Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo said this drill would not only provide good information for the schools, but also important procedural and tactical information for law enforcement and other emergency responders. “We will observe, watch, debrief, and go over how the execution went,” he said. “We appreciate the cooperation of the school district – and the weather – for today’s exercises.”

The Ballston Spa schools were not the only district to benefit from Friday’s evacuation drill. According to Stuart Williams, Coordinator of Community Relations for Ballston Spa Central School District, drills like the one held on May 8 are open to all school districts, public or private, who would like to observe. After Friday’s safety exercise, visiting school officials who had gathered in the playground to observe the proceedings were invited to debrief with the Ballston Spa school officials, a meeting that would be of invaluable help  with emergency planning in their own schools. 

Although private schools are not bound by the SAVE Act, they regularly work with law enforcement and other emergency responders on school safety plans and drills. 

Ken Goldfarb, Director of Communications for the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany, said “Schools of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Albany follow all state regulations when it comes to fire and evacuation drills. They are all encouraged to work cooperatively with all local police and fire departments with regard to these matters. They all conduct at least four lockdown drills each year, and are expected to follow all the same procedures and practices that are required of the public schools.”

[Photo caption: Law enforcement personnel debrief after the drill. Photo provided by Ballston Spa Central School District.]

According to Jim Cultrara, Director of Education for New York State Catholic Conference, those efforts could use more support from the State. After the 2012 school shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT, the New York State Legislature increased funds for equipment and other protective measures for schools, initially leaving out funds for private schools. Parents and private schools had to lobby the State to get funding that first year and every year since. 

“The State education budget provides $4.5 million in funds for safety for nonpublic schools,” said Cultrara, “which averages to about $9 per pupil. Private schools can’t levy a bond for school safety initiatives. The State needs to keep in mind that senseless violence and natural disasters are indiscriminate and can happen anywhere, not just in public schools.” 

Fortunately, the Saratoga County Sheriff’s office understands that all too well, and the observations gained at Friday’s drill will help responders be better prepared and equipped for all schools anywhere in the county. “Law enforcement is available for both public and private schools for walk-throughs, emergency plan review, and other services related to emergency planning,” said Zurlo.

Michael E. Pizzingrillo, MS Ed, PD, superintendent of schools for the area Roman Catholic Diocese, said he valued the support of local law enforcement and other emergency responders in their safety planning and exercises. 

“Our schools take the safety and well-being of all students as paramount,” said Pizzingrillo. “We work closely with local officials and I conduct annual school visits to each school, reviewing safety plans. Especially in light of school shootings elsewhere around the country, schools have made great advances in safety and security while still able to maintain a welcoming environment, not losing that personal touch that students and parents have come to expect from our schools.” 

This was the first time the county had conducted a drill of this size, involving roughly 200 state, local and regional law enforcement, fire safety, and emergency responders in collaboration with the Saratoga County Office of Emergency Services and the Ballston Spa Central School District.

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