Representatives from both public and private schools met with law enforcement and other first responders Thursday morning to discuss school safety.
The meeting was spearheaded by the Washington School District’s safety committee.
In addition to school personnel, the committee includes officials from the Washington emergency medical service, fire and police departments, as well as deputies from Franklin, St. Charles and Warren counties.
Superintendent Dr. Lori VanLeer said the committee felt it was important to expand its work to include parochial schools in the area.
“The strength of our crisis and emergency plans are only as good as our partnerships,” VanLeer said.
More meetings are planned, she said, to expand current plans and develop strategies in dealing with a wide range of safety situations.
“We can all learn from each other. The parochial schools all had great ideas,” she said. “I do want to stress that we all have safety plans in place, but we know we can and should build on those plans.”
The focus of Thursday’s meeting was communication strategies, unified command and safety audits or inspections of all school facilities.
“We talked about how we can improve our response, and how and what we should communicate to the general public when certain issues arise,” VanLeer told The Missourian.
“Communication is important, both with the public and other schools since many of our buildings are in close proximity,” she said. “We realize we can never control all of the instant communication via social networks, but we need to get correct information out in a timely fashion.”
VanLeer said some information discussed at the meeting won’t be shared publicly due to safety concerns, such as where command posts would be set up.
Washington School Resource Officers Casey Hill and Doug Tollison said building reviews for the Washington School District should be completed by the end of the month. Tollison explained that a thorough school safety inspection takes between one to two days to complete.
The district also is considering a new notification system to more effectively inform parents during emergency situations. Pending school board approval, the district will transition to a notification system called SchoolReach — a St. Louis-based company that prides itself on school-to-parent communications.
St. Francis Borgia and Our Lady of Lourdes schools currently utilize SchoolReach as their notification system and representatives from the schools described its features and user-friendly interface during Thursday’s meeting.
Washington Police Chief Ken Hahn called Thursday morning’s safety meeting with school administrators “very productive.”
“I think it went very well,” Hahn told The Missourian.
“We’re working toward standardized planning for all schools in the area,” he explained.
One of the key things will be standardized notification to schools during potential emergency situations.
For example, Hahn said, during a recent incident involving a search for an armed man in the vicinity of Washington West Elementary, the school district placed all schools in Washington on lockdown until the suspect was arrested. There was no direct threat to the school.
However, a lot of misinformation was disseminated over social media, Hahn noted.
He said by developing a standardized notification process, all schools in the vicinity would be informed about a situation at the same time.
“If any good could come out of the tragedy in Connecticut, it’s that this type of planning is under way all over the country,” Hahn said.
Police and schools always have made plans, but “it’s always good to review and update any plans already in place,” he said.
“We plan to have more meetings and do some table-top exercises, ending with a full-scale training exercise,” Hahn said.
The committee is scheduled to meet again Thursday, Feb. 21.