Perspectives diverge on Blair's emergency plans

Oct. 16, 2006, midnight | By Cate McCraw | 14 years, 3 months ago

Administration confident, students skeptical about school safety and preparedness

A fire drill scheduled for Sept. 21 was canceled because of the delayed distribution of IDs, according to attendance secretary Roxanne Fus. Students without IDs would not have been able to join their homeroom classes at their assigned locations in the football stadium, which are designated on their ID cards.

The effectiveness of the ID policy as a security measure has continued to be one of the most divisive issues regarding Blair's emergency preparedness. Despite assurances from the administration that safety strategies are organized and in place, many students have expressed concerns school safety, especially after the three school shootings that occurred between Sept. 27 and Oct. 2 in Colorado, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

Having worked on the new ID policy with Blair administrators, SGA President Eric Hysen attributed the controversy to poor communication. "There has been a lot of negative PR about the ID policy, and it hasn't been communicated to students well," he said. Hysen said many students do not feel that the IDs are necessary due to the lack of communication.

Senior Felix Rodriguez believes that the volume of students at the school could attract intruders. "The school is too large. It makes it an easier target," he said. "There's always going to be a large number of people in the classrooms, and [outsiders] know that."

Similarly, junior Brittany Dismon thinks that in the case of an emergency, any semblance of organization would quickly break down. "I think Blair is really overcrowded," she said. "I have a class in a really small room, and it's too much - if a fire does happen, everyone's going to rush out of one door."

Many students' fears were reinforced by the chaos that followed a bathroom fire on Dec. 7 last year, when the stadium was locked and unprepared for the evacuation [see "Fires prompt evacuations," page 1, Dec. 15, 2005.]

Of the 200 students who were polled in an informal Silver Chips survey conducted during the weeks of Sept. 11 and Sept. 18, 69 percent said they believe Blair is unprepared for an emergency.

Robert Hellmuth, director of the MCPS Department of School Safety and Security, explained that an emergency is any situation that disrupts the normal school day. School mean the administration needs more control over the students and their whereabouts, he said.

While Blair is the county's largest school, with 2,952 students enrolled this year, Charles Harper, field security coordinator for the Downcounty Consortium, believes that the school has comprehensive emergency plans. He said that Blair is fortunate to have Principal Phillip Gainous - "a veteran administrator who has seen a lot and done a lot" - in addition to an experienced security team.

"Blair is certainly one of my concerns because of the size and the potential out there, but not because of the planning," he said.

According to Gainous, Blair has always been on the "leading edge" of safe-school initiatives. He said that the county's original crisis plans were based on Blair's emergency preparedness program.

Gainous also said that Blair accounts for its size in its safety plans. During fire drills, students report to their homeroom teachers at a designated location in the football stadium, where teachers are obligated to take attendance and submit the record after each drill. "If you go to the same place every time, regardless of what happens, we can account for everybody," Gainous said.

John Crowley, Project Training Coordinator of the Montgomery County Department of School Safety and Security, does not doubt the competence of Blair's administration and security staff. "Gainous, I'm sure, handles emergencies every day, but not necessarily to the extent you know about," he said.

State law requires schools to have a minimum of 10 fire drills per year. MCPS requires at least four Code Red and Code Blue drills annually. A Code Red is an alert status indicating that an immediate threat exists within a school. Staff and students are instructed to operate discreetly during a Code Red. A Code Blue is also a lockdown scenario, except that classes are allowed to proceed as usual.

Gainous said that emergency plans are constantly reexamined. Events such as the shootings at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999 drastically altered the perception of school safety and presented new obstacles for the administration. Major revisions have been made to countywide emergency plans in the past 10 years, particularly after the Sept. 11 2001 terrorist attacks and the local sniper shootings of 2002.

Crowley explained that there is a delicate balance between a safe school and student freedom. The safest school would place heavy restrictions on student and staff activities, which could interfere with the learning environment. "I could stop all the shootings at schools, but it's going to look like you were going into a prison every day," he said.

Harper stressed that communication is essential to successful implementation of a school's emergency plan. He believes that students have the most important role in maintaining a secure learning environment. Harper encourages every student to report suspicious people and activities.

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