Outdated fire alarms can be a danger to students and teachers

The killer at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School set off a fire alarm to lure students into hallways on February 14. The Sun Sentinel  reports that once the shooting began, the school went into a Code Red procedure, where doors were automatically locked, and students and staff were required to stay in their classrooms. However, the gunman, Nikolas Cruz, pulled the fire alarm, “which overrides a Code Red.”

“As a result, doors that would have otherwise remained shut were being opened by students, making it easier for the gunman to find victims,” the Sun Sentinel reports.

Jerry Graziose, the Broward County school district’s former directory of school safety, told the Sun Sentinel that he had recommended upgrades to fire alarm systems so that the entire school doesn’t have to evacuate when someone pulls an alarm. Students will often pull false alarms as pranks.

There are systems available that will give the office 40 seconds to determine whether an emergency is real before sounding a school-wide alarm, Graziose said. The system could also be overhauled so that fire alarm levers are installed only in rooms where large numbers of people gather, such as auditoriums and libraries, rather than in every hallway.

The district included an $908,000 upgrade to fire alarm systems at Stoneman Douglas as part of the 2014 bond referendum approved by voters. The work was supposed to be completed by 2016, but it was delayed and is now included as part of a $10 million overall renovation to the school. The district expects to hire a vendor in July.


McLean High School to embed time for intervention or enrichment within each school day next year

Greg Brandon reports that McLean High School’s “Highlander Time,” which is set aside “for students to receive educational intervention or enrichment” will no longer be optional next year.  In an email to members of the Fairfax Education Coalition, Greg noted that Highlander Time “was designed so that students who had good grades good sleep-in for the first period on Wednesdays; however, they would not be able to take a school bus.  Students who needed intervention or craved enrichment could take the bus at the regular time and get help from their teacher during the first period.”

Seems that most students thought they neither needed intervention or enrichment but craved more sleep on Wednesdays.  Beginning next school year, Highlander time will be 35 minutes every day after 1st/2nd period.

Looks like the MHS students were voting for later high school start times with their pillows.

Here is the email from McLean High School:

Dear Parent/Guardian:

Beginning in September 2013, Highlander Time will be embedded within the school day to make it more effective for our students.  This will replace our current format on Wednesday mornings. Fairfax County high schools are expected to have time set aside during the school day for students to receive educational intervention or enrichment.   At McLean, we are determined to use Highlander Time to provide our students with the most positive support possible to enhance their educational experience and achievements.

This past year, we measured the success of Highlander Time being offered every Wednesday at the beginning of the school day.  When comparing our attendance data to quarterly grade reports, it was clear that Highlander Time is not being used effectively for intervention or enrichment.  A committee of administrators, teachers, and counselors set out to create a schedule that would benefit all students with grades ranging from A-F.  Considering all other Fairfax County high schools currently have embedded time, we were able to successfully benchmark and identify the greatest successes with regard to intervention and enrichment.   Lastly, we talked with a sampling of McLean students, teachers and parents to develop a plan to make Highlander Time more effective.

Embedding Highlander Time within the school day meets several objectives stated by these interest groups:

  • Allows every student access to his/her teachers for extra help on a daily basis
  • Ensures the safety and security of our students by having the ability to take attendance and account for all students throughout the day
  • Helps reduce student stress and anxiety by allowing for extra time for academic assistance, to make up tests, to start homework, or to work on group projects
  • Provides time for teachers to build more positive one-on-one relationships with students

The new Highlander time will be held daily after 1st/2nd period for 35 minutes.  Students will have access to each of their teachers on a rotating basis.  This will allow students the opportunity to see each teacher 2-3 times per month, in addition to having the option to see a particular teacher more often if needed.  Teachers are looking forward to being able to use this time in a variety of ways to provide the needed intervention and enrichment.

We did not make this change without significant due diligence.  We understand that many families and students viewed Highlander Time as an opportunity to sleep in one day a week.  However, Highlander Time was never intended to be used as such, and the Wednesday morning format has actually been detrimental for many students in need of additional support and enrichment.  We believe that by embedding Highlander Time into the school day, our students and teachers will reap many benefits.

If you would like more information about this change, please visit our website at www.fcps.edu/McLeanHS/ .  I appreciate your cooperation as we make this needed change.

Thank you,

Ellen Reilly
Principal, McLean High School

Should all Virginia schools have armed police officers?

The Virginia General Assembly is considering legislation that would require the state to provide funds for an armed police officer in each school. In Fairfax, each middle school and high school already has a school resource officer (SRO). John Torre, the spokesman for the school system told the Fairfax Times that placing an SRO in each of the county’s 139 elementary schools would cost $20 million.

Governor Robert F. McDonnell has created the School and Campus Safety Task Force, which is expected to make recommendations soon.

Washington area schools seek to reassure community members about safety

The Washington Post reports that Washington area educators and psychological experts emphasize that maintaining a sense of normalcy is important after the disturbing news of the killing of 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut.

Caitlin Gibson also reports that the Prince George’s County Pubic Schools conducted an active-shooter training drill with local law enforcement in June. “On Friday, D.C. Public Schools reminded principals to practice lockdown procedures and review active-shooter protocols,” Gibson reports. “A representative of the D.C. Public Charter School Board said District charter schools plan to take advantage of active-shooter training for staff in coming months.”

A message from Superintendent Jack D. Dale mentioning increased police patrols this week is included in the latest update from Fairfax County Public Schools: FCPS Resources for Community Support in Response to the Connecticut Tragedy.

Fairfax schools post new guidelines on crisis communications

Fairfax schools rethink strategy for handling bomb threats | WashingtonExaminer.com. Lisa Gartner reports that Fairfax County’s public school system is revising its crisis communications policy. After the staff analyzed the communications delays during a bomb  threat at Annandale High School on March 30, they came up with new guidelines for handling such situations.  “Barbara Hunter, the assistant superintendent for communications and community outreach, said school administrators will no longer wait for the principal’s OK before getting involved in situations like bomb threats,” Gartner reported.

See also Update on Fairfax communications during bomb threat Friday

Graeme R. Newman advises schools on handling bomb threats

Bomb Threats in Schools, by Graeme R. Newman, was published August 2011 by Community Oriented Policing Services, U.S. Department of Justice. This is part of the Problem-Specific Guide Series. These are guides to prevention and to improving the overall response to incidents.

In the section covering immediate responses to a bomb threat, the guide summarizes advice about recording the threat, analyzing the threat, evacuating the school, locating a bomb, talking to the media, following up after the incident, and placing police officers in schools.

Here is the paragraph about talking to the media:

Your response plan should have included directions on when to call the media to report the incident or threat, who should do it, and preferably who to call in the media. The response team should have included a media representative in developing the plan. It is preferable that parents and relatives of the children be given timely and accurate information. Positive relations with media outlets will make this task much easier to accomplish. As a result of constructing the response plan, training in media relations could be an important undertaking for those individuals who will talk with the media in time of crisis such as a bomb threat.

It is interesting that the paragraph on placing police officers in schools states that this should not be done without extensive preparation and dialog between the police department and the appropriate school authorities. Newman states, “Some research has suggested that the introduction of police into a school may signal over-reliance on police intervention and may in fact increase levels of student disruption.”

Update on Fairfax communications during bomb threat Friday

The Annandale, VA Patch has an update on the communications from Fairfax County and the school system regarding the bomb threat at Annandale High School on Friday. In a previous post I repeated a report that parents of some elementary school students were told to provide alternative transportation for the children to school. The parents were also told that bus transportation would be provided at a later time.

Patch reports that Fairfax County Public schools sent out a Keep in Touch (KIT) message at 9:44 a.m. that explained the bus situation:

Because some of the buses that serve these schools are those that also serve Annandale High School first in the mornings, several buses are also impacted. Schools are open and students are welcome when they are able to arrive, either by parent transportation or once the buses can be cleared to transport them….

Since I subscribe to the Fairfax County Community Emergency Alert Network (CEAN), I received the following email at 10:34 a.m. on Friday:

Students at Annandale High School (4700 Medford Drive, Annandale) are now being escorted into the school cafeteria and gymnasium while police finish their sweep of the building.  The School will conduct a regular school day as soon as the situation is cleared by Fairfax County Police. Staff and students have not been allowed into the building while police investigated a bomb threat that was called in earlier this morning. It is anticipated the school will be opened shortly.

Then at 11:00 a.m. I received the next CEAN message:

Annandale High School has now reopened and students are being allowed back into their classrooms. The school will conduct a regular school day.

Annandale Patch was given the all-clear by FCPD at 10:22 a.m.–“The FCPS KIT alert for the all clear was sent at 11:57 a.m., more than 90 minutes later.”

Fairfax fails to promptly inform students and parents of bomb threat

Communications about safety threats in Fairfax County, Virginia, need to be improved. On Friday, police were called to Annandale High School around 4:35 a.m.  after two calls were received that reported a bomb at the school. One call was made to  WJLA-TV.

The student co-editors-in chief  of The A-Blast  at Annandale High School posted a news bulletin at 7:40 a.m.  Students were not allowed inside and were kept on the buses for hours.  The buses moved to different locations. Meanwhile elementary school students waited at bus stops, unaware that buses were not coming.

“Why is it that the school could not have issued a mass phone call to homes in the three hour window it had between the issuance of the threat and the arrival of faculty and staff to advise community members to stay home?” asked Noah Fitzgerel, editorials editor of  The A-Blast. “A simple ‘all-call,’ comprised of a simple mandate to stay at home would have sufficed.”

Fitzgerel said, “Plainly, 9 a.m. was too late for the AHS administration to issue the first official call regarding the nature of the bomb threat at AHS.”

Parents of students at 16 elementary and two middle schools were told to find alternative transportation for their children. WTOP.com reported that the following elementary schools were affected: Annandale Terrace, Bren Mar Park, Columbia, North Springfield, Weyanoke, Braddock, Beech Tree, Belvedere, Bryant, Camelot, Canterbury Woods, Fairhill, Little Run, Parklawn, Pine Spring, and Sleepy Hollow. Holmes and Poe Middle Schools were also affected.

At 10:22 a.m. the Annandale, VA Patch reported “Fairfax County Police Department and Public Schools officials have given the official “all clear” and Annandale High School has reopened.”

Further investigation led detectives to Marco Antonio Verduo Toledo, 19, of  Burke. He was charged with felony threats to bomb and criminal trespass.

I agree with the conclusion in Noah Fitzgerel’s  editorial:

At this point, thankfully, the sole lesson to draw away from today’s events is that FCPS and the AHS administration need to improve the manner in which they inform students, faculty and parents about the nature of emergency events. Just as with any emergency, it is now time to learn from mistakes.

How should Fairfax County improve the monitoring of cafeterias and hallways?

At a school board work session today, the Fairfax County Public Schools Department of Facilities and Transportation Services presented a proposal to use video surveillance cameras inside school buildings.  School board members are interested in hearing the opinions of parents on this issue. I recommend that the school board re-institute the Safety and Security Task Force.

In the fall of 1988, there was a security problem with an intruder at Weyanoke Elementary School.  I asked Carla Yock (Mason District) and the other school board members to take a closer look at methods of monitoring visitors to our schools. Carla Yock appointed me to the newly formed Safety and Security Task Force, which developed several recommendations for improving security. At that time the school system started having staff members wear badges and they started a more systematic procedure for logging in visitors. Also, new or renovated schools were required to design front offices to improve the ability of office staff members to see visitors entering the building.

After several years of work, the task force disbanded since there were no new issues on the agenda. Two decades later, I think it is time to take a fresh look at safety and security in our schools–a new task force would make sense.