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SOUTH COVENTRY—Following the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., schools across the nation are more focused than ever before on keeping students safe.
Last week, more than 200 Chester County school administrators and law enforcement officials gathered in the Owen J. Roberts High School auditorium for a county-wide safe schools summit.
The purpose of the summit was to promote safe school environments, share best practices and foster collaboration between school and community law enforcement agencies, according to a press release provided by the Chester County Intermediate Unit, which facilitated the event.
The summit featured a speech by Chester County District Attorney Thomas Hogan, a question-and-answer session with a panel of school and law enforcement officials, and breakout sessions focusing on various aspects of school safety.
Hogan told attendees that, while the odds of a school shooting in Chester County are slim, thanks to high-quality law enforcement and proactive school safety planning, they are not non-existent, according to the press release.
“Columbine and Sandy Hook were nice places, too,” he was quoted as saying. “The fact that the odds are lower for us does not in any way mean that a school shooting couldn’t happen here. We need to be vigilant and we need to be fully prepared.”
He went on to discuss shooter profiles and law enforcement response, and shared his best practices for making Chester County’s schools safe. He strongly recommended that schools have a school safety plan, developed in partnership with local law enforcement, that is practiced at least twice a year.
Owen J. Roberts Superintendent Michael Christian said the district hosted the summit because OJR administrators believe they have a lot to share with other districts, but also want to improve on existing safety and security measures.
“The district attorney did a fine job of describing a variety of scenarios school districts and communities could encounter, and he emphasized having a strong communications plan,” Christian said.
While OJR already has a safety plan in place, Christian noted that modifications and enhancements are always being made to that plan.
“Since the Connecticut tragedy all school districts are re-evaluating their safety plans. We’ve made modifications and I think that’s an ongoing process,” Christian said. “That needs to be something we revisit on a regular basis.”
The district’s security chief Larry Mauger served as a panelist during the question-and-answer session and also presented a session on First Responder Responsibilities. Although the emphasis of that session was on response, Mauger stressed the importance of four phases of emergency management: prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.
Over the past several years, the Owen J. Roberts School District has developed a safety and security plan that contains over 1,700 pages, according to Mauger.
“As far as safety and security are concerned, we’re very proactive,” Mauger said.
The district has installed sophisticated visitor management systems that check all visitors for Megan’s Law offences. It also has surveillance cameras in the buildings, and access control systems that require all visitors to enter through a single entry point.
In addition to those measures, several security officers and two full-time police officers, including Mauger are employed by the district. Mauger also works regularly with all the police departments in the district and the state police.
“You need that line of communication,” he said. “We rely not only on police but also fire departments and emergency responders. We asked them for recommendations when we developed the plan. We wanted them all to be involved.”
Creating a safety plan is only one aspect of preparedness, Mauger observed.
“A plan shouldn’t be something you develop and put on the shelf. We’re constantly training and doing drills,” he said.
Gone are the days when fire drills were all school officials worried about. Today, schools hold drills for weather emergencies, lock downs, reverse lock downs (to bring in students in when there is an outside threat) and radiological emergencies.
In addition to Mauger’s presentation, the safety summit featured four other sessions on topics that included risk and assessment considerations after Sandy Hook, communicating with stakeholders, parent child communication, and intervention services after a tragedy.
Mauger expressed his hope that similar summits will be held in the future.
“The problems Owen J. Roberts has are the same problems other districts have,” he said. “Through open lines of communication we can keep all our students safe.”