WINDSOR COUNTY, Vt. – Statistically Vermont is one of the safest states in America. It has the second lowest violent crime rate in the country, surpassed only by Maine. Though neither the state nor local communities take much assurance in such statistics when it comes to school safety, where nationwide attacks on schools are changing Vermont’s perception and approach to safety in schools.
“I feel my kids are safe in our schools,” said Springfield school board member Mike Griffin in a February meeting. “But unfortunately I don’t think I can have that ‘not in my neighborhood’ attitude anymore.”
That same month the State of Vermont conducted a statewide safety survey of its schools to assess their emergency preparedness. Ninety-five percent of 422 schools participated in the study, with 98 percent participation among public schools and 88 percent among private and independent, according to an April 19 press release by the Vermont Department of Public Safety.
Gov. Phil Scott ordered the assessment following an alleged school shooting plot in Fair Haven that was uncovered earlier that month. Scott said these findings would help the state determine its next steps to make its schools safer.
The study finds “disparities” between schools when it comes to emergency preparedness, the press release said. While 96 percent of schools participate in mandatory safety drills, schools vary – sometimes greatly – in respects to plans, safety practices, and equipment.
Plans and practices
While all schools are required to have a comprehensive emergency plan, the study finds that only 70 percent have shared their building floor plans with local emergency responders, and only 56 percent communicate what to do during emergencies with families of students.
In Springfield every school has a comprehensive emergency plan, district security supervisor Kevin Anderson told his school board in February. Each plan includes floor plans of the building, evacuation, lock down procedures, and emergency contacts. The plans use the same command system employed by the military, police, and fire and emergency agencies to improve communications and effectiveness. Each school gives a copy of its plan to the Springfield police department for coordination purposes.
Black River High School Middle School, in Ludlow, also shares its emergency plan with local first responders, said Principal Karen Trimboli.
Trimboli says that Ludlow is fortunate to have its local police and fire departments, as many rural towns do not. Being a small community Ludlow’s departments play an active role in supporting school safety.
Additionally, schools in towns without a police department must rely on state police and neighboring departments as its first responders in an emergency, which can delay the time of arrival.
“A lot happens in 15 minutes,” Trimboli said in reference to the potential arrival time of police from outside areas.
Cell phone coverage can pose another challenge for schools in an emergency. The state’s report found that 36 percent of Vermont schools lack reliable cell phone coverage on school grounds.
Cavendish Elementary School, in Proctorsville, technically constitutes such a rural school. Though Principal George Thomson says that while cell phone coverage can be “spotty,” the school’s internet enables them to contact families by school messenger.
“We can send messages in a few minutes, by text, email, or phone,” Thomson said.
CTES’s emergency preparedness is also better than many Vermont schools. Unlike 17 percent of schools, Cavendish’s outside doors are locked during business hours, including during the afterschool program’s operation. Cavendish also has emergency “go bags” in each classroom, whereas 42 percent of schools do not.
“Go bags” contain items to sustain students and occupants during an emergency. Go bag items can include first aid, safety equipment, food, or recreational activities to fill time. Thomson said that Cavendish’s bags include games and activities to occupy children during a prolonged emergency.
In Springfield schools, bleeding control items like tourniquets were added to their go bags this year, Anderson said. The decision responds to findings from mass shootings, in which many victims died from blood loss.
Many school administrators hesitate to discuss their security equipment in detail, even if their schools are better equipped than others.
Trimboli said that there is so much property to cover and so much equipment, most schools will always identify a need. Even schools that have some number of security cameras typically have areas not under surveillance, such as their parking lots.
School budgets are tight and security equipment is expensive, Trimboli said. The list is broad as well. In addition to cameras, door locks, and intercoms, schools need pull-down blinds for every window and walkie-talkies in order to communicate when electric power is unavailable.
The state report finds that 25 percent of schools lack outside cameras, and 38 percent have no walkie-talkies or portable radios for communicating with staff. When asked what equipment upgrades could improve security, 65 percent of schools identified security cameras and 43 percent said door-locking systems.
Gov. Scott has requested $4 million dollars be earmarked to provide school grants for security upgrades, said Public Safety Commissioner Thomas Anderson. Anderson says the department hopes to make these grants available to schools for the 2018-19 school year.
Trimboli said she expects every school to apply for grant money.
In February Springfield school administrators recommended a district-wide facilities assessment for security needs be conducted during the 2018-19 school year.
Training and prevention
Schools are mandated to participate in a number of drills each school year to demonstrate their ability to execute a variety of procedures, including classroom lock down; building evacuation or site evacuation, which involves students and staff relocating to a designated off-campus site.
Though all interviewed administrators said their schools participate in the state mandated drills, the state study finds that more specialized training and practice is wanted by school staff. Seventy-four percent of schools would like more training in active-shooter response, and 58 percent in assessing behavioral threats.
Notably, over half of the schools identified a need additional emergency exercises and drills.
Anderson, a former state trooper, recommended to the Springfield school board for more time to train staff and practice drills. During his police experience, the repeating simulated drills were critical to preparing them.
“When entering high risk situations, people have to be ready,” Anderson said. “Routine practice makes a person more comfortable with the procedure in order to attend to the situation around them.”
Springfield’s discussion, however, also illustrated the limits of reactive-based responses to school attacks. In the recent mass shooting at Stoneman Douglas H.S. in Parkland, Fla., the shooter Nicholas Cruz lured students and faculty out of the classroom by pulling the fire alarm. The ability of assailants to tactically adapt to existing procedures and technology drives national and state safety officials to continually revise its emergency protocols.
Anderson said in February that Vermont law only exempted hospitals and correction centers from evacuating during a fire alarm, and that the state would likely be reviewing emergency procedures in the wake of the Florida shooting.
Trimboli said that being prepared for every possible scenario is impossible, and the focus for schools is to prepare where risks are most known and common, but also to make the school a safe and healthy environment for students.
“The best thing [school can focus on] is how we deliver services to families,” Trimboli said. This includes students and parents, by working in partnership with families and assisting them with needed resources to help children undergoing trauma or related difficulties.