Iowa schools are creating new school emergency plans or updating existing plans to satisfy the requirements of a new state law.
But those emergency plans will not be reviewed by the state or anyone else, as the new law contains no such requirement.
The new law, passed in 2018, requires public and private school districts to have emergency response plans for responding to natural disasters and active shooters. The plans must be unique for each building in the school district, and each building must conduct annual emergency response drills.
The plans, under the new law, must be “high quality,” developed in conjunction with local law enforcement and emergency response agencies, and confidential for safety reasons.
They must be completed by June 30. But they will not be verified or vetted for their quality. Districts will simply report to the state education department whether they are done.
The law requires only that districts create new plans with those requirements. It does not require the plans to be vetted, certified or reviewed.
Concerns were raised about the lack of oversight when the law was being debated by state lawmakers, although it ultimately passed both the Iowa House and Senate with unanimous votes of support, shortly after the school shooting in Parkland, Florida.
“It does absolutely nothing,” Cindy Winckler, a Democratic state legislator from Davenport, said during lawmakers' debate. “It is hard to take a positive vote on such incomplete work.”
Skyler Wheeler, a Republican state legislator from Orange City, said he disagreed with the assertion that the bill was nothing more than a “feel-good” proposals.
Staci Hupp, a spokeswoman for the state education department, said the new law is part of a “holistic” approach to school safety taken by the state. In addition to the new law for school emergency response plans, the department has offered resources to districts to help make them high quality, and the department has provided or sponsored training for school officials, for example, to recognize behavioral issues and potentially violent behavior, Hupp said.
“We really are doing our best as an agency to support schools as they develop these plans, as we ultimately try to keep our kids safe,” Hupp said. “It’s a piece of the overall picture.”
Roark Horn, executive director of the organization that represents school administrators across the state, praised the state education department, state lawmakers, Gov. Kim Reynolds and local school leaders for working together to enhance school safety.
“Undoubtedly, the collaborative efforts of all these entities have made schools even safer learning environments for our students and teachers,” Horn said in an email.
Most local school leaders contacted for this story said they have long had in place emergency response plans. Some said their plans already met the requirements established in the new law; others said their plans needed minor updates or tweaks to satisfy the new law.
But the state education department in 2018 said while 88 percent of Iowa school districts reported having security plans, fewer than 10 percent were “high-quality” plans that included drills for school staff.
“Those plans didn’t necessarily meet the law because we were finding variability in quality and the plans weren’t always tailored to every school in a district as they need to be now,” Hupp said.
Districts will report to the state education department whether their emergency response plans meet the new state requirements during the department’s annual spring collection from districts of myriad data.
Here are snapshots of how some districts from across the state are handling their emergency response plans:
Bruce McKee, a district level security and student outreach specialist and former Davenport police officer, is tasked with constructing the district’s new safety plan.
McKee’s is a new position created last year, and the district plan includes a team of roughly 40 security professionals, two new school resource officers and introducing security personnel to elementary schools. The district, meanwhile, is making drastic cuts to its general fund to meet state budget requirements. It sought state permission last year to dip into its reserve funds to pay for the new positions.
The “majority” of McKee’s time has been spent working on the state-mandated plan, district director of operations Mike Maloney said.
“The approach involved looking at what we’ve got and evaluating and comparing it against the standards and doing the research on best practice to bring it into the plan and pulling it together in a way that gives direction to individual buildings and administrators,” McKee said. “It’s a lot of research to make sure its best practice and best suits what our district needs. They don’t come out and tell you exactly what your plan should look like and involve — it just tells you to follow the structure.”
When former Superintendent Art Tate was first lobbying for state approval for funding, the emphasis was on Parkland and growing concerns about an active shooter. McKee’s priorities, though, are much larger than that.
“I wouldn’t say [an active shooter] is not the highest priority, that’s the wrong way to state this,” McKee said. “... When you talk about planning for a disaster, for me, [a natural disaster] is the worst case scenario: You have a school full of kids and a wing is taken out by a tornado. And we deal with that every single year in Davenport, Iowa. Every single year we have tornadoes in the area. We don’t want to put a 10 on this problem and a one on this one -- we certainly prepare for both -- but it’s not just active shooters.”
The tension the district is addressing is how to create a secure learning environment without making students feeling like they’re in “constant lockdown.”
“We’ve consulted with other districts to compare notes on what they’re doing and what they’re finding in their research,” Maloney said. “It’s evolving, I think, nationwide.”
This past fall, North Scott narrowly avoided tragedy when a junior high student was accused of trying to shoot a teacher, but the weapon’s safety device was on.
The district has a safety committee of 15 to 20 people that is headed by junior high school principal Erin Schwartz. The district has had a crisis manual for years, and the manual has been revisited regularly, even before last fall’s threat, superintendent Joe Stutting said.
“Like all plans, they continuously improve from incidents at our school, national incidents,” Stutting said. “You’re always updating your plan to make it better. For us, it wasn’t like, ‘here’s a new requirement from the state,' we had a plan. … We just continue on.”
In addition to changes to address the near-shooting, Stutting said the district has been “chipping away” at a to-do list from an audit conducted by Homeland Security five years ago. Updates have included school cameras, a “buzz-in” system for all buildings, and an anonymous calling system.
Even with regular overviews, Stutting said the district spent dozens of additional hours this year to address the state requirements, the majority allocated to addressing reunification after an event.
“That takes some time and planning and training. Does everyone know where the reunification site is at? What are our options?” he said. “If your building isn’t usable anymore, where are you going to hold your education classes? It’s all encompassing, from immediate accountability to long-term educational services.”
That was one of the “biggest holes," Stutting said. The district needed more staff trained in crisis management -- including media training -- and to establish a chain of command for who is focused on what at both the building and district level.
Another piece was making sure teachers were aware of students who might need physical help during an emergency. The district doesn’t havetwo-storied buildings, which Stutting said helps, but individual cases must be handled at the teacher and building levels.
Bettendorf schools have had an emergency operations plan -- formerly known as a crisis management plan -- at least since Celeste Miller started as the director of operations 20 years ago.
“We’ve adapted and changed and adjusted that plan,” she said.
The safety committee is coordinated by Miller, and directed by Director of Student Services Kay Ingham. It includes representatives from each school level, central administration, nurses, counselors, police liaisons and EMS medics.
“We meet twice a year, and we look over the plan and make suggestions and talk about other district safety things,” Miller said, adding the process did not dramatically change to accommodate the state requirements.
One thing that changed was the district’s communication plan, which added non-school employees who frequent buildings onto communication lists, including classroom volunteers, AEA personnel and Vera French representatives.
“We have school messenger … and we’ve always had parents on that, we’ve had staff on that, but we’ve added other people that come to the district on a regular basis that are not employees,” Miller said. “We need to do a little more with communication on reporting a potential threat. ... Whenever there’s something that happens in a neighboring school district, it also affects our district."
They moved away from the 19-year-old anonymous phone hotline to report threats, to the “See Something, Say Something,” national campaign, and integrating the P3 app for reporting threats, and from ALICE-style active shooting drills to a "Run Hide Fight" model.
The plan is audited yearly by local safety personnel, and talks about what might need to be updated or reviewed happen “constantly” during the biannual meetings, Miller said.
Incoming Pleasant Valley Superintendent Brian Strusz, now an assistant superintendent, oversees the safety committee, and says they've always done an annual review. But the state law forced a "deeper dive" and included more people for input.
Historically, the district’s two school research officers have conducted an annual audit reviews of safety plans, and there have “very seldom” been changes, unless administrators were changing. The committee includes nine people at every building level and central administration, including the two school resource officers.
“We’ve also met a couple times with the Scott County emergency management team,” Strusz said. “We’ll run our plan by them again when we’re all done, probably.”
Strusz said the district started in October with the state template as a “guiding plan,” and worked with an online consultant.
The Pleasant Valley district includes parts of Bettendorf, Riverdaleand LeClaire, so multiple response teams need to be updated.
“We have to make sure when we’re done with all this that they’re a part of it, and they can review it and see if we forgot something,” Strusz said.
Strusz said the big focus was on active shooters, tornadoes and fires.
“That’s what you’re going to see the most often" he said. "Hopefully, the active shooter you never see, but planning for that scenario is something you still have to do.”
While not yet enacted, Strusz said a holistic plan was required so students were safe, especially when some reactions are so automatic.
“The number of people who die in a fire in school each year is minimal. Probably, more people are killed in shootings than school fires,” he said. “So if a kid comes in and pulls the fire alarm, your first reaction is to do what? You go out. So suddenly they’re waiting for you. One of the things we’re thinking about is, if a fire alarm goes off, can you wait for a further announcement?”
The district also annually reviews which students require physical accommodations, and whether they have an aide or teacher assigned to them. For the multi-level buildings, Strusz said carriers are available in the stairwells.
Safety officer Dan Huff said the district holds more drills than what is required in the new state law, including a drill for evacuating students to an alternative site in the case of an active shooter or dangerous intruder, or for other safety concerns like a fire or suspected gas leak.
Each building in the district has a designated safety chairperson who is responsible for coordinating drills, and those individuals meet monthly, Huff said.
“We’ve got people who work pretty hard at it,” he noted. “It’s just a priority here at Waterloo Schools to stay on top of our safety drills.”
The district has long had a comprehensive crisis response manual that set forth plans for its 31 schools and met the new law’s requirements, district security administrator Laurel Day said.
The district’s plans were highlighted during state education department training sessions as an example for other districts to follow, Day said.
“Everything in the new law either was in (Cedar Rapids schools’) plan already, or we had it ready to roll out before the deadline,” said Eric Werling, whose position as school security and crisis response supervisor was created in the summer of 2018 in the wake of multiple school shootings across the country.
This school year, Werling has introduced a school visitor check-in system that requires scanning a government-issued ID and is preparing staff for enhanced lockdown drills that will teach students to run, hide or fight rather than only shelter in place.
Dan Conrad, the district’s director of secondary education, facilitates the district’s safety committee. He said they “had to do very little” to update the plan. He said the committee helped to develop the plan a number of years ago and keep it current.
Superintendent Ed Klamfoth has headed up the effort to create safety plans, which have been reviewed by the principals. He said the plans are now updated and “more comprehensive” than they were before the new law.
Klamforth said he attended meetings and sat in on a number of webinars hosted by the state education department.
Superintendent Paul Gausman said the district has long had an emergency response guide that exceeds the requirements in the new state law. He said staff members are trained and drilled annually to make “evidence-based decisions” in the face of crisis.
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Superintendent Matt Alexander said the district had plans in place but noted the law’s requirements that districts have plans for specific scenarios and collaborate with local law enforcement and emergency response personnel.
Andrew Wind of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Bret Hayworth of the Sioux City Journal, and Molly Duffy of the Gazette in Cedar Rapids contributed to this story.