WATERLOO | Administrators, teachers and staff in Waterloo Community Schools have learned how to respond when a dangerous intruder enters their building.
Now district officials are readying plans to introduce those ideas to students.
The training, set to begin in November, will give students and teachers more options than traditional approaches that stop with locking down a classroom and hiding.
Willie Barney, the district’s executive director of supplemental services, noted school administrators and teachers always knew where their students were under the traditional approach. But it was also easy for an intruder to predict where to find them, as a growing list of multiple victim shootings at schools and universities in recent years shows.
“We’ve now modified that to what we call an enhanced lockdown,” said Barney. The idea is to “increase survivability” when an intruder enters a school with a gun or another weapon.
That means adding the options of evacuating and countering an attack when appropriate. The modifications are based on U.S. Department of Homeland Security recommendations and follow the “run, hide, fight” framework developed several years ago.
Barney explained the plans to a small group of parents Thursday during an informational meeting at Central Middle School. He said intruders bent on violence will find ways to get into a school “no matter what we do to fortify, short of making it a prison. If someone wants in, they’ll get in.”
He also emphasized teaching students how to respond to an intruder is precautionary, much like the fire and tornado drills schools conduct. Most students will never face a dangerous intruder.
“Our intent is not to say the likelihood is very high, but it is possible,” said Barney. He noted the skills students will learn are helpful “not just in a school environment, but in a mall, at church -- any place there’s a large group of people together.”
He said part of the reason armed gunmen were able to kill so many people at Colorado's Columbine High School in 1999 and at Virginia Tech University in 2007 was because those victims didn’t flee or take action to try and stop the attackers.
District officials did not consider weapons for staff members, an idea that has been debated around the country and implemented in some places in the wake of such massacres.
“There has been no discussion regarding the arming of teachers or staff,” said Barney. “Those are the kinds of discussions that would need to begin at the state level before they would be considered at the individual district level.”
In 2013, a resolution was introduced in the Iowa House to allow carrying firearms on school grounds following the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. But the proposed bill never made it out of committee.
Anne Lange of Waterloo was thinking of that 2012 shooting when she decided to attend Thursday’s meeting.
“I’ve got a young elementary student and Sandy Hook really affected me, so it’s been on my radar,” she said. “I’m glad that the district decided to share it with the community and parents. I think it will help me talk with my student and it gives me a little peace of mind that it’s being worked on.”
Those at the meeting didn’t raise many questions or concerns in the course of Barney’s presentation. Because it was widely publicized through an email to parents and reports in the media, officials think the low turnout indicates many district residents are comfortable with providing the training to students.
“In the parent communication that went out to announce the meeting, we did our best to provide enough information to hopefully answer most of the questions around the changes that were being made,” said Barney. “Additionally, there (have) been ongoing discussions across the country and locally regarding school safety, so the changes that we are discussing aren't really new to the community.”
Cedar Falls Community Schools has already put its students through similar dangerous intruder training.
“Our student training started last spring,” said Dan Conrad, the district’s director of secondary education, and went well. “We found out a few things we needed to change at the building level.” This fall, the district’s schools are going through the training and must finish by the end of the month.
“I would say the vast majority of our parents were supportive and appreciative of the training,” added Conrad. A small group of parents voiced concern the training would scare their child, but few families opted out of it.
While both the Waterloo and Cedar Falls districts were looking at implementing the training for staff and students, Waterloo chose to take the process slower. District officials closely watched Cedar Falls’ implementation and are trying to build on its experience.
They’ve created a curriculum to train students. “The big thing that I need to emphasize is that the curriculum that’s put together is age appropriate,” said Barney.
At the lower elementary level, teachers talk about the issue differently, and they don’t provide as many options to the children.
The first option when a teacher knows there is a dangerous intruder in the school is to identify an escape route and get out of the building quickly. A relocation point is identified on campus outside of the school for the drill, while an off-campus site is chosen for real situations. Students are directed to run away in a zigzag pattern to evade gunfire.
When an escape route can’t be identified, they are to lock the doors, turn off the lights and cover the windows. Then the students and teacher are to barricade the door with desks, tables and other furniture. Finally, they get out of the line of sight and do things like silence cell phones.
“It’s important to do everything to avoid the intruder,” said Barney. But when confronted, secondary students are taught to counter the attacker. That could mean anything from throwing items at intruders to piling on top of them.
“An intruder expects victims, they don’t expect folks to stand up for themselves,” said Barney. While students will do running and hiding drills, they’ll just discuss ways to counter an attacker.
The training drills will be done over multiple days and include a Power Point presentation, discussion and drills. Secondary students will also watch a dangerous intruder video produced by the district.
An informational Power Point about the training will be posted on Waterloo Schools’ website this week for parents. Training materials can be viewed through building administrators in November.
Lisa Featherston of Waterloo, who has fifth- and eighth-grade students in the district, attended the parent meeting and said the training is a good idea.
“It’s important for the kids to know what to do,” she said. “It’s sad that we have a world like this, but we have to be prepared.”