Alarm aftermath offers learning opportunities
Stevens Point Area Public School District officials are using a frightening incident to assess collaboration with law enforcement agencies and communication with the public in the event of a school crisis situation.
“Every time something happens there will be circumstances that make each situation different, and it makes it very difficult to plan for,” Superintendent Craig Gerlach said. “Therein lies the gain in the activities that happened Friday. Now we can start asking ‘what if’ … we can learn from it and improve processes and move forward.”
An emergency lockdown alarm activated Friday, Feb. 17, immediately directed about 50 law enforcement and safety personnel from seven different law enforcement agencies to respond to Ben Franklin Junior High School on highest alert.
The alarm, while not typically accessible by students, was fraudulently pushed by a student; district officials have completed their investigation into the incident and believe the alarm was set “without malice.”
“We can confirm a student did push the button,” said Sarah O’Donnell, communications director for the school district. “Due to confidentiality, I cannot release any more information surrounding that.”
District officials have been instructed by district attorneys that they cannot release any additional information due to student privacy, including the student’s age or gender or whether discipline will be sought through the district or through law enforcement.
Ben Franklin holds 850 students and about 100 staff members in a building with 55 classrooms, a gymnasium, library, lunchroom and other areas. The alarm sounded at about 12:20 p.m., students and staff were all safely evacuated and the all-clear was given at about 1:50 p.m.
The district last had a high-alert alarm set at Stevens Point Area Public School District April 19, 2016; that proved to be a system malfunction. The high alert system was installed in the district in 2015. Prior to that, it is not known when the last high alert alarm was sounded in the district, officials said.
District personnel in each building hold individual trainings for such incidents annually with students and staff. Officials said the lockdown and evacuation Friday went smoothly and according to those trainings.
Monday, Ben Franklin students and staff certainly were discussing the events from Friday, but there also were indications that already the building was returning to normal, such as teachers high-fiving students as they entered class.
School psychologists throughout the district were on hand throughout the day in case staff or students needed it; Gerlach spent time at the school, and school leaders addressed the situation over morning announcements. Teachers also took time in class to discuss it as students settled back into a school routine.
Staff and students were not available for comment this week; school district officials requested media respect the efforts to return to normalcy.
“Knowing we had a situation on Friday that was unfortunate, our goal is to get the students back comfortably into their classes,” Gerlach said.
The district’s Cabinet – top officials in the district – met Sunday and Tuesday looking into the process and procedures conducted Friday, and the district’ Safety and Security Team met this week to examine the plan of action and determine any necessary adjustments.
Gerlach said the district planned to meet Friday, Feb. 24, with law enforcement that responded to the scene also. The Portage County Sheriff’s Department deferred to the Stevens Point Police Department for comment; Stevens Point police did not return requests for comment by press deadline.
“Those discussions will review the day and the procedures and then I’m interested in having a secondary meeting with Plover, for example, in the event this would happen in another building. I want to have all of our protocol (known) in all buildings,” Gerlach said.
Some suggestions may come from the Safety and Security Team Committee members while others could come from any of the multitude of emails Gerlach has received since the incident.
“About 90 percent of the emails I’ve received have been positive, and many have been positive with constructive criticism, suggestions and concerns,” he said. “All are very appreciated and understood.”
One area targeted for conversation is communication with parents. Gerlach and the district have been criticized for not releasing information until after 2 p.m. Friday – nearly two hours after the alarm sounded at 12:20 p.m. and several minutes after all of the students were evacuated.
Gerlach stated again this week that he wanted to have confirmation that there was no danger prior to sending out a communication to parents, so he made the decision to wait until law enforcement made a second sweep through the building and announced the all-clear.
District policy has been to wait until after an incident before any communication about the incident is made public. Parent concerns and district concerns about keeping parents informed are spurring the district to re-examine that policy. The district also may look at educating parents and the community about different types of drills and what procedures follow those potential events.
Other aspects also will be reviewed, such as evacuation points. Plover Fire Station 2, for example, has not been identified as a district evacuation point in the past, but law enforcement directed student to the location Friday and it worked very well, Gerlach said.
“You can’t train for something like this,” he said. “You go through training but you don’t know how staff will respond, you don’t know how students will respond, you don’t know how you’re going to respond. Staff and students responded very well, law enforcement responded very well. We locked down and evacuated just like we trained.
“There’s also some communication we can improve on, so we’ve learned from that part, and that’s a positive,” Gerlach said.
Agencies responding included the Stevens Point Police Department, Portage County Sheriff’s Department, Plover Police Department, Wisconsin State Patrol, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources, Stevens Point Ambulance/Fire and Portage County Metro fire units.
Portage County Emergency Management also responded.
“Emergency Management collaborated with law enforcement, fire, EMS and school staff to put well-organized system in place that allowed for the safe and effective reunification of students and their parents while maintaining accountability and security of students at all times,” Deputy Director of Emergency Management Paul Riegel said.