DES MOINES — Iowa schools are creating new school emergency plans or updating existing plans to satisfy the requirements of a new state law before its June 30 deadline.
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.
The plans 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 have completed their plans.
In essence, the law requires district leaders be taken at their word that they have completed the plans and met the law’s requirements since they will not be vetted by the state or subject to public review for safety reasons.
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.
“It does absolutely nothing,” Cindy Winckler, a Democratic state legislator from Davenport, said during the 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” proposal.
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 ensure their plans are 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.
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Emergency plans were already in place at schools across the Cedar Valley when the governor signed the bill mandating them throughout the state.
Dan Conrad, Cedar Falls Community Schools’ director of secondary education, facilitates the district’s safety committee. He said they “had to do very little” to update the plan. “We’ve got a pretty wide-ranging committee that helped initially develop the plan” a number of years ago and kept it current.
“Everything that was required was in our plan,” said Conrad, except for a procedure allowing students to anonymously report a threat. “We’re looking right now at potential vendors that would allow for that to happen.” The threat would be reported through a phone app sent to an outside agency that contacts the school and law enforcement.
Currently, the state requires four drills each for fires and tornadoes plus two bus evacuation drills. But Dan Huff, Waterloo Community Schools’ safety officer, said district policy already calls for a number of others.
Once a year, each district school holds drills for students concerning evacuation to an alternative site and dangerous intruder/active shooter. The evacuations could relate to a number of situations like a suspected gas leak or other building safety concerns as well as a fire, for example. Prior to the active shooter drill, said Huff, “each level – elementary, middle and high school – has age-appropriate lesson plans for three-four days and then do the drill.”
Staff members at the elementary schools do a missing child drill each year, where they go through the steps that would be required in that situation. Two table top exercises on various situations are also required for district staff annually. “It’s preparation, but it’s not a full drill,” said Huff.
Each district school building has a designated safety chairperson, responsible for coordinating drills. The people in those positions across Waterloo Schools meet monthly. Drill completion dates are entered into a Google document and safety chairs can expect follow-up from Huff if any are missed.
“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.”
Superintendent Ed Klamfoth has headed up the effort to create safety plans in the Waverly-Shell Rock Community Schools, with review done by the principals.
“We’ve got a draft plan pretty much for every building now,” he noted. “I would say it’s an update and more comprehensive than we had before. There isn’t a lot of change.”
He has sat in on a number of webinars done by the Iowa Department of Education about creating the plans and attended other meetings face-to-face. “You take a look at what’s mandated and try to figure out how it fits into your plan,” said Klamfoth.
“The reality is you need to have it,” he added, of the emergency plan. “You hope you never have to use it.”
All of the districts are working with emergency management and law enforcement personnel in completing their plans.
The state requirements are “to make the creation of the plans a more collaborative effort with local emergency management and services,” said Sarah Smith, advancement director for Cedar Valley Catholic Schools in Waterloo. The school system has used a state template for developing this latest version of its emergency plan.
“After each monthly webinar, a section of the plan is completed,” said Smith. “Then the team comes together to review the progress made that month on the plan. Roughly four to six hours each month has been devoted to this learning and planning process.”
Waterloo Community Schools has seven police officers, referred to as school resource officers, in its three high schools and four middle schools. The officers’ assignments also include the district’s 11 elementary buildings. In addition, the Waterloo Police Department has an officer assigned to the city’s five Catholic schools.
One officer serves all of Cedar Falls Schools’ 10 buildings. “He’s housed out of the high school, but is available to all our buildings,” said Conrad. No police officers or security guards are stationed at Waverly-Shell Rock’s six schools.