IOWA CITY – It is the back-to-school issue no one wants to think about, but unfortunately, they must.
On Thursday, just a few days before school starts, the Iowa City school district and local law enforcement conducted mock intruder drills at 20 schools.
In one scenario, a police officer pretending to be a gunman roamed the halls of West High, occasionally firing blanks, as teachers and staff – kids were absent – practiced how they would respond.
With the horrors of Columbine, Virginia Tech and Sandy Hook on their minds, schools across the nation now prepare for an intruder the same way they have long held fire drills.
“As society evolves, some things are good. Some things you deal with,” Iowa City schools Superintendent Stephen Murley said after a 2 1/2 –hour training session at West High.
In the Cedar Rapids school district, staff training occurs twice a year, said Laurel Day, the district’s security manager. It also recently updated its security protocols after she attended the same type of training that Iowa City practiced Thursday.
In addition to twice-a-year intruder training, the College Community school district had local law enforcement conduct a safety review of all district buildings last spring, spokesman Steve Doser said. Resulting from that was a new security system that requires visitors to be buzzed into schools, locks that are keyed from the inside of classrooms and signs identifying each school building.
In recent months, the Iowa City school district has installed fencing and security cameras. It’s preparing to rollout a new visitor-entrance system that will include an instant background check by scanning a person’s identification card, Murley said.
Thursday’s training was for a specific program called ALICE, or Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate. It is the product of an Ohio-based organization and is increasingly popular.
The Iowa City school district has performed tabletop exercises with law enforcement but never before had staff gone through a drill meant to imitate a school shooting.
Twenty of the district’s 26 school buildings did so Thursday, with the rest doing it in the coming days. Buildings were closed to the public and the news media during the drills.
Three scenarios, each involving an intruder with a gun, were practiced. West High Principal Jerry Arganbright said participation was voluntary, but 90 percent of the school’s employees showed up.
He said they walked away learning that if something happened, they had options. They also learned some of their past practices may not be the safest. For example, instead of locking down all classrooms during an incident, it probably makes sense, in a building West’s size, for people away from the immediate danger to evacuate, he said.
Iowa City police Sgt. Troy Kelsay said practicing what to do and talking about it afterward are invaluable. Some school employees were visibly nervous at the start, he said.
“There was a palpable sense of relief after the first exercise when people realized, ‘I can do this,’” he said.
Science teacher Matt Harding said the discussions were especially helpful.
“It gave us some context to practice the decision making,” he said.
The city of Iowa City and the school district this spring discussed assigning armed police officers to West High and City High, but the district backed out over cost concerns and after some community members objected.
In annual surveys conducted by the state, school safety has not been a concern among Iowa City school district students. In fall 2011, the most recent data available, 96 percent of respondents said they felt safe at school.
Day, the Cedar Rapids school security manager, acknowledged it would be hard to stop someone intent on doing harm, but she said parents should not worry.
“School is still the safest place for our children,” she said.