School officials told to prepare for all kinds of safety hazardsby Roseanne Pereira, Minnesota Public Radio
As the investigation continues at Virginia Tech, many local school officials are re-examining their safety plans. In Northfield, school principals, educators and police officers gathered for a seminar arranged months ago, on safer schools. While presenters says it's natural for people to focus on school shootings at this time, they stress that schools face other dangerous situations, much more regularly.
Northfield, Minn. — The seminar dealt with everything from bullying to bleacher safety. Presenter Michael Dorn of Safe Havens International told the crowd it's vital to know which experts to call upon in a crisis situation. Police officers are often first on the scene, but Dorn asks, are they experts in handling, say, hazardous chemicals?
"They're the blue canaries. That's what the fire department calls them. 'We'll let them set the parameters. If they fall down, we don't go over there without that stuff on.' That's not what they're (police) trained to deal with!" Dorn tells the crowd.
Dorn was joking about the blue canary part, but Farmington Police Detective Steve Kuyper, who attended the seminar, couldn't agree more about the importance of identifying the right expert for the job.
"The police can't take on everything. We can't supervise all the students because we're dealing with the emergency situation at the time. We're not gonna have the manpower to supervise, find out which kids are there, that type of thing," says Kuyper.
During the seminar, presenters talked about how all too often, safety plans are drawn up without involving the right people. Sometimes schools simply adopt a plan developed by someone else. Michael Dorn says, that doesn't work. He recommends tailoring safety plans in consultation with local police, firefighters, and other emergency services.
Dorn knows how deeply people are effected by tragedies like the Virginia Tech massacre. He's often called into speak to schools about safety after a tragedy, but he believes, it's smarter to have, what he calls an all-hazards approach. That means accounting for known threatening conditions in school environments, things like fire hazards, slips and falls, and natural gas explosions. These account for thousands of deaths and injuries each year he says.
"The terrible situation that occurred at Virginia Tech is still not the worst act of campus violence we've had in this country," says Dorn. "The worst incidence of violence, was in 1958 at a Catholic elementary school in Chicago. A 4th grader killed 95 people when he burned the building, which restates the need to have all hazards safety planning, and not get too focused just on acts of violence."
Dorn says safety problems can take many forms.
"More children die in about a week from heart stoppage, than die all year from acts of violence," says Dorn.
That's not to say schools shouldn't be prepared for someone walking in with a gun. Dorn says training can help here, too. To demonstrate, Dorn walked into a press conference later in the day, wearing what looked like a normal pair of pants and a shirt. Then he began pulling out weapon after weapon, a handgun, a switchblade, a rifle.
"It shows just how easy it is to conceal a weapon, but it's important to know that campus officials can be trained to detect the weapon," says Dorn.
The visual weapons screening Dorn talks about involves training school officials to know what to look for -- to recognize how a person may be walking or behaving differently if they are hiding weapons. Dorn says this is less intrusive than installing metal detectors.
School officials discussed many situations including how to deal with an emergency when worried parents and media flood campus. Many say they will use this presentation to develop new safety plans.