Incident a good test of school policies, procedures

Linda Madsen
Rick Peterson
Guest Columnists

It’s a great community we have in the Forest Lake area, especially for those of us who have lived here for most or all of our lives. We have an investment here that is worth protecting at all costs.

The most precious resource we have in Forest Lake, and the surrounding communities, is our children. In the event of an emergency or crisis, the first thing on the minds of local police and first responders – and of course our school district – is to make sure that our children are safe.

A situation arose in the city recently that did not directly involve the students or staff of the school district but certainly could have created a serious safety risk if the potential threat had turned out to be real. An individual who was at first thought to have been in possession of some type of weapon was believed to have been walking in the general area of Forest Lake High School. Police had received a report that a juvenile from another area was possibly suicidal and may be carrying a gun of some kind.

The police immediately contacted the high school and advised the school, and the nearby Century Jr. High and districtoffice, to go into a state of lockdown. This is standard procedure for police in this type of situation, and school officials are well trained in handling this type of situation. All three buildings went into lockdown status, and later the school district made the decision to put three other schools – Forest Lake Elementary, Forest View Elementary and the Central Learning Center in what is known as containment status.

This simply means that the building is in a state of alert. The doors of the building are all locked and, if absolutely necessary, individuals may enter or exit the building through the main entrance but everyone doing so is carefully monitored, as are the areas outside of the building. In a containment, activity within the building continues in a more-or-less normal state.

At this time, officers were working to find the individual in question in order to determine whether he was a threat to himself or others. The juvenile was found and officers determined that he was not in possession of a weapon.

Fortunately, this potential emergency turned out to be a false alarm. But we all know that real threats do occur, and they can occur in small cities just like Forest Lake. It is during situations like these that we are able to test our policies and procedures and make corrections when necessary. We are happy to report that both police and school district staff acted quickly, appropriately and without hesitation to ensure safety of both students and staff in the school buildings. Had there been a real threat or emergency, the actions of the police and school staff may very well have averted possible harm and maybe even saved someone’s life.

We felt that it was important to raise the subject of school safety in the hope that we might ensure our community that we take these matters seriously, that we are well-trained and prepared to tackle an emergency situation, and that – as national studies have shown – there is no safer place for a student to be than inside a school.

For police and school officials to continue to maintain a high level of student safety, it requires not only a great deal of work and effort on their parts but also the support and cooperation of the community, and especially that of parents. We appreciate the trust that parents place in sending their children to our school district, and we appreciate that in most situations parents recognize the role they play when an emergency, or potential emergency, occurs. Here are a few things you should be aware of:

Communication

In today’s day and age – with cell phones, the Internet and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter – information can be transmitted and received in a matter of seconds. We all know this, but sometimes we forget that in the midst of an emergency situation, not all information that is transmitted by untrained people is accurate. Even people who communicate with a cell phone who are in the midst of a situation may not know all the details, and often will unwittingly pass along rumors, speculation or even false information as true fact.

In any situation where a lockdown or containment takes place within a school, the police and school district are committed to informing parents as quickly as possible with accurate information. Sending out incomplete or inaccurate information is never a good thing and almost always results in unnecessary problems, so police and school officials must be absolutely certain that the information is correct before it is sent out. This takes time.

In addition, while communicating information in a timely manner is important, it is not the first priority of any parties in a school emergency. The first priority is always to conduct the correct procedures to ensure the safety of both students and staff. That absolutely must take precedence over any type of communication. Once the immediate threat is resolved, then facts can be gathered and information released to both parents and the news media as quickly as possible.

So a parent might receive an email or text message or Facebook posting that a school is under containment or lockdown within minutes of the alert, but they may not receive information from the school until possibly 30 – 60 minutes after the emergency, or even later. We encourage parents to be patient as the situation is resolved and not to immediately assume the worst, or to believe rumors or speculation by others. In an emergency situation, the school will contact you via its messaging systems.

Role of Parents

The role of parents in an emergency situation is critical to its success. The best role that parents can play in an emergency is to let school and emergency personnel do their jobs. Here are some tips:

1) Do not come to the school. While it is a parental instinct to want to come to your child’s school and take your child home in an emergency, this is almost never the best approach and should not happen unless you are specifically asked by officials to pick up your child. Coming to the school during an emergency can create undue risk for any of the following reasons, and maybe dozens of other reasons. Among these are: a) your vehicle may be blocking emergency vehicles and you yourself may be impeding emergency personnel from doing their jobs; b) your presence at an emergency scene can risk your safety, depending on the nature of the emergency; and c) you need to be somewhere where school or emergency personnel can find you if necessary.

Again, being inside a school is the safest place your child can be during almost any emergency.

2) Do not call or text your child on their cell phone, and your child should not call or text you. This is another important thing to remember. Under no circumstances should you call or text your child during an emergency. Use of cell phones not only uses up precious bandwidth that emergency personnel may need to coordinate their activities, but if, for example, there is an intruder in a building and children are hiding, the sound of a cell phone ringing, of a child’s voice or

the clicking of text messaging could indicate to the intruder your child’s location.

3) Do monitor the school district website. Accurate information about the emergency will be available on the website as soon as it is available. Messaging may be as brief as “Forest Lake High School is currently in lockdown status. More information will be available soon.” As soon as officials are able, they will provide as much accurate information as they can, either through the website or the messaging system.

Following these suggestions will allow everyone involved in an emergency to do their jobs and prevent any unnecessary harm to students or staff.

We hope that this column will help you better understand the work of school district staff and emergency personnel when dealing with a crisis situation, and that you will continue to support our work and our community.

Linda Madsen is superintendent of schools in ISD 831. Rick Peterson is Forest Lake chief of police.

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