Observations: School Safety

In the wake of yet another school shooting today in Ohio…

School safety is a difficult subject.

ComplicatingOstrich things are that many educators, especially administrators, haven’t been trained and are relying on instinct.

Then, there is the stack of mandates. I’ve had more superintendents than I can count tell me they could work 24/7 on the federal and state mandates and not get through all of them.

Safety often gets put to the side, especially as most administrators were never exposed to the necessary training during their credentialing process.

They don’t know what they don’t know and don’t know where to get help.

Many administrators are also afraid of what the parents will say so (why are you doing this drill?  Is our school that unsafe?).  They implement what I call the Ostrich Approach and rely on public safety.

There are two fallacies in the assumption that public safety knows what to do:  First, teachers and administrators are the first responders in a school incident; they need training.  Second, law enforcement knows how to deal with the bad guys. That’s their job. They’re not focused on handling hundreds or thousands of students during an incident. That’s the school’s job.

Add to this, the administrator and teacher changes; people retire, move on to other districts so unless the drills and procedures are institutionalized, the knowledge quickly disappears and is forgotten.

In working with law enforcement, I’ve learned a tremendous amount. Their training is in a “high anxiety, fear-based” mode, primarily because that’s usually the scenario when they arrive at an incident. Even that training, at least in California, is changing with the awareness that a de-escalating, calm approach, especially when dealing with people with mental illness, can get far better results.

Teachers, on the other hand, use a “scaffolding” mode — that is, start with the basics and grow the subject, making certain that students are supported so that everyone can succeed.

Law enforcement uses a “one size fits all” approach; teachers have 30 or more student variables, including students with autism, physical disabilities, processing challenges, etc. They need to know their options.

With law enforcement now conducting most of the lockdown trainings, I have concerns that the standard “run, hide, fight” approach, while certainly the correct response, has been better framed for adults in the business world than for one adult with 20 – 40 children.

My experience is that officers also need a bit of training in order to work effectively with school kids.  You can’t just bark orders. There are those officers who intuitively know; others who need, hmm, some scaffolding in a more appropriate approach.

Parents often worry about drills and the impact on youngsters, but it’s really no different than teaching children not to get in a car with a stranger, not to run out in the street, etc. It’s teaching (and drilling) students to evacuate in a fire, drop/cover/hold in an earthquake, for example, and run or barricade in a lockdown.

The fairly recent research out of Harvard shows that humans are hard-wired to freeze in an emergency UNLESS our brains have been re-wired through drills to react differently.  In 9/11, people froze and died; the exception was the Morgan Stanley office that had been repeatedly drilled under their Security Chief Rick Rescorla, retired US Army.  Rescorla died after returning to the towers to rescue others, but the 2,687 Morgan Stanley employees lived after immediately evacuating.

Fires used to kill hundreds of children in schools; not one child has died since school fire drills have been mandated and building codes updated.

Drills are critical.

Long time past, after the citywide lockdown training had been concluded and the drills were rolling out in over 300 schools, the mayor had a town hall meeting.  I was asked to be there, just in case there was a question regarding the drills.

One young mother stood up, nervous but forceful. She looked the mayor straight in the eye, took a deep breath and told her story.

My first grade daughter came home last month with a note that her school was having a Code Red drill the next day. It was too late to even call and complain. I was angry.  My daughter has been terrified since 9/11 and now, a drill?  I made arrangements to leave work early so I’d be home when my daughter arrived. I was so worried.

My daughter skipped into the house, excitedly announcing that it had been the best day ever in school. They had learned and practiced what to do if a bad man with a gun ever came into the school. They put tables against the door, built a fort, were very quiet and then the officer gave them each a sticker for walking out to the playground without talking after the drill.

Now, her daughter announced, I’m not afraid.  I know what to do.

The parent concluded, I just wanted to thank you.

The lesson, beyond the obvious, is that parents and parent groups are the ones that often make it both safe and essential for schools to train and drill for emergencies.




The Frog, the Terrorist & the Parents

A bit more bactentkground before launching into the three-ring terrorist simulation at a high school with a couple thousand kids…

Our first simulation, a Columbine-type sim, was conducted on a Saturday morning with 400 kids, teachers, administrators, classified staff and law enforcement.  Our learning curve was steep.  We didn’t know what we didn’t know.

Out of that learning experience grew both law enforcement training and school training.  We each developed our own training, but agreed to view the other’s and offer a critique. I have to say, sitting in the back of a large room of officers, listening to the lecture, was a pretty amazing experience.  Then, the officers went to the actual practice; I wanted to join in.

You’ll shoot yourself. Or us. No.

It’s a paint gun.

Alas, they knew me too well; the paint gun was off limits, but it was exciting to note that our two trainings were completely integrated.  

The entire SWAT group showed up at one elementary/middle district to listen to my training. They stood the entire hour in the back, in uniform with weapons, arms folded across chests, unsmiling. At the conclusion, they told me it was great and they could now take 2,000 variables (aka students and teachers) out of their equation, which made catching any bad guy so much easier. uh huh.

Every school in the area had conducted numerous “Code Red” Lockdown drills following the training and so, we felt very comfortable taking on this next simulation.

We also thought that it would also be beneficial to bring in 200 or so parents at a Reunion Center, seeing as that had never really been tested and, in actual events, pretty chaotic.  We recruited 200 volunteer parents as well as 200 student volunteers to be evacuated and put parent and child together at a meet and greet a couple of weeks prior to the simulation.  I even recruited a few retired teachers, including Sisters Dianne and Mimi. It was amazing how quickly the new parents and their new kids bonded.

The plan called for the opening shots by our terrorist/substitute teacher and the response by school and law enforcement, including students running to a neighboring school site.  Fire was on standby because of the injuries.  Safety Officers/evaluators were in every classroom and with every police/fire team, noting minute by minute what was happening and able to stop or pause the action if necessary. The local media had also set up shop and were using the event to practice with the three Public Information Officers from the different systems.

Once the terrorist was caught and the area secured, fire stepped forward with their Triage, Treat, Transport area for the injured while law enforcement began the evacuation of our 200 student volunteers and their teachers.

The evacuated students were then bused to the District Office, now a Reunion Center, while injured students were also taken to the District Office and into the large Board of Trustees Room, where our partnering hospitals had set up a mock emergency room.  Every kid had a completed and signed permission slip, according to state law, and their real parents knew exactly what was going to happen.

It was a three ring circus, including a very, very large tent outside in the District Office parking lot to hold hundreds of police, fire, students, educators, parents, VIPs, etc. following the event. We had prepared bagged lunches, speeches and hopefully high five’s all around.

Things began that morning according to plan. It all was going smoothly.

What could possibly go wrong? 

At the Reunion Center, the parent were arriving, having been bused in, a busload at a time to simulate what would probably happen in an actual event. As they started to gather, they were in role, anxious and waiting, talking quietly among themselves.  Then a couple of parents — it might well have begun with Mimi — grew louder, demanding information about their child.

It all became very, very loud and very, very realistic very, very quickly.

I’ll only say that afterwards the police who were trying to maintain control at the Reunion Center said facing armed terrorists were far easier than facing parents and if anything really happened in the future, we were on our own with parents.

There was only one glitch, and it was minor in the grand scope of things.  Law enforcement teams were evacuating classrooms as planned until one group ran into an intersection of hallways.  The team was supposed to turn right and continue with the evacuation.  Instead they turned left and opened the first classroom door.

It was a classroom with a very novice first year teacher and very high need Special Ed students.  The kids knew exactly what to do; hands on their heads and walked out, as directed, in a straight line. No talking; no fooling around. They were great. Their teacher, too terrified to say ah, wrong classroom to a team of well-armed officers, followed along as well.  They all marched right onto the bus and made the trip to the Reunion Center.

Without permission slips, violating a little item called state law.

Fortunately, the administrator at the Reunion Center immediately recognized what had happened. The real parents were called as the kids excitedly lined up for lunch and the scheduled events in the Three Ring Tent.  Pretend parents stepped in to sit with them, and we were back on track again for the closing ceremonies.

I’ll share some observations the next time around…


The Frog and the Terrorist

frogWay back when, after 9/11, our city’s Emergency Manager received a grant from Homeland Security to conduct one of the first terrorist attack simulations at a high school and, for the first time, test Unified Command with police, fire and education. 

We had previously conducted an active shooter simulation with law enforcement. That had been a Columbine type sim, with kids, teachers, administrators, classified staff and SWAT teams.  We had learned an unbelievable amount that led to new trainings for both schools and law enforcement. So we moved ahead with this exercise in order to better inform our work in keeping students, staff and schools safe.

I should note that a simulation is not completely scripted; it’s a lot of pushing dominoes and then evaluating what happens.  What could possibly go wrong, especially when including 2,000 teenagers, a hundred or so teachers, and a couple hundred parents?

Nine months of planning and preparation — a lot like giving birth — and we were almost ready. 

We had met with students, teachers and parents, given them their roles and responsibilities, as well as the opportunity to opt out of the simulation. The same thing happened with elementary and middle schools in the surrounding neighborhood. Very few opted out, which made the event much more realistic. Of course, we had mental health counselors available during and after the event, although they were not needed.

On the school side, we were adamantly opposed a script having a terrorist coming onto a campus; that would give too many idiots too many ideas. So we settled on a substitute teacher, which was a safe choice as subs always get blamed for everything anyway.  The sub was assigned to a science class and then lost it because the lesson plan called for dissecting frogs.

I’d probably lose it too, even though I’m not particularly fond of frogs, but then I don’t carry a gun so my response would have been in the neighborhood of getting queasy and turning green.

Our sub was scripted to have belonged to an organization opposed to dissecting frogs which qualified as a terrorist organization, go figure, so we were covered under the grant requirements.  The sub was actually a former SWAT officer with a disarming smile which was helped because he was going to be “killing” three different teachers before shooting a young female drama student who tried to escape.  And yes, he used very loud blanks to make it all the more realistic.

One of the educational objectives was to see if our students could successfully take charge of the classrooms without an adult after the shooter moved on (the “dead” teachers being comfortably positioned on the floor and trying hard not to nap).  The kids did exceptionally well.

Our young drama student, ecstatic over her lead role, was going to be “killed” in front of audience of city council members, county supervisors, numerous school superintendents, police chiefs and other invited VIP guests who then got to watch the sim unfold while being very aware of our young student-actress sprawled out on the ground twenty feet in front of them.

Personally, I think it’s very helpful to unnerve leaders every once in a while and we did accomplish that.  They were all pale and visibly shaken by the time the exercise was completed.

Our primary objective, however, was testing Unified Command, wherein the people in charge from the participating systems — in this case, police, fire, education — worked together to problem solve issues with the lead agency in charge of rendering decisions. While most citizens would assume that, oh, police, fire, public health, mental health and schools all happily work together, it is not often the case so this sim would be very interesting in testing the newly federally mandated “unified” approach.

First, however, we had to bring all the participating police responders, fire/rescue teams and school administrators together to go over the scope of the sim, without giving away the details of what would get thrown their way.

As we were planning the prep meeting, it occurred to the fire and police commanders that if either one of them, or their chiefs, told the group to not hi-jack the script, the other department would never listen. Fire obeys fire; police obeys police. Evidently, though, they were all still terrified of English teachers because I was handed the task of reinforcing that they all stay on script.

That completed, we were ready to go.

To be continued…




A Fraction of an Inch

IMG_0351It’s all about a fraction of an inch.

I don’t know what it’s called. Spatial something or other. The bottom line is that I seem to have an internal gauge or yardstick that can see the placement of items and whether they are aligned with everything else and are straight. Really straight. A fraction of an inch off and I fix it.  Immediately.

It’s a gift and a curse. 

I’m really good at hanging paintings without levels, pencils and the like. I can eyeball a wall, and, yep, that’s exactly where it goes. Usually, not always, one little nail hole and the painting is perfectly hung.  Or, it’s off by an eighth of an inch and I begin again.

At times I actually can help family and friends.  I recall my daughter calling, crying.  Newly married, beginning grad school, and in a new apartment, she was near hysterical.  Her husband and his buddies had spent the afternoon arranging, rearranging, then moving yet again the living room furniture and it still wasn’t perfect.  It didn’t flow and, if the energy doesn’t flow, my daughter would be unnerved and unable to study. They would have to move.

She is, after all, a bit like her mother.

Mom, help.

She rattled off the location of walls, windows, doors and views. 

I said Give me a few minutes and I’ll call back.

I did and twenty minutes later, she called again, relieved.  It worked. The living room was perfect and they did not have to find another apartment. Her husband and his buddies were relieved as well.

I know one other person with the same eye; when I was moving into yet another home, my friend arrived to see how things were going.  The movers had just moved my very heavy bed into the bedroom and called me to see if it was placed correctly.

Alas, they know me too well.

Two and a quarter inches to the left, we said in unison. It didn’t matter that the room is twenty feet long; the bed needed to be moved two and a quarter inches. To the left.

And, then, it was perfect. And I knew I wasn’t the only one in this world with the cursed spatial gift.

So, now, I am attempting to quilt and my mind’s eye sees exactly where the seam should be, how the pattern should unfold. Fabric, however, is more difficult than paintings or furniture. Or teenagers.  It moves; it dances and I, the novice, have not yet learned how to manage it, other than cursing.

And, that doesn’t seem to help very much.

I picked up a second pattern for a “scrappy” quilt, queen size no less. The woman who had designed the scrappy pattern said, of course, you can do it; it’s not that hard.

Being new at this, I was without scraps, which meant I had to purchase sufficient material — yards and yards — from which to make the scrappy squares. I also got so enthusiastic that I cut 288 pieces of 2 1/2 inch by 4 1/2 inch blocks before realizing I had not washed, dried or ironed the fabric.


Of course, after washing and drying, the blocks shrunk ever so slightly, which probably wouldn’t have been a problem, but, given “the eye” and being a novice, I went back and purchased yet more yardage of a slightly different shade, which I didn’t like nearly as much as it didn’t dance that well with the 72 scrappy squares, each with 16 squares of different fabrics.

I started working on the alternate squares.  One square scrappy, followed by alternate square of cream material with an “X” of small black squares.

Easy Peasy, the designer said.

Sure.  One little black square was a smidgen too large; another a bit crooked.  I tore out more seams than I sewed.


I finally called it quits, wondering what to do with the 72 already completed squares of scrappy material.

ah ha!  I now had scraps; 288 rectangles in a rich cream tone; 288 slightly larger rectangles in a lighter cream tone.  It’d work, dammit.

I am now somewhat happily putting together 72 more squares (actually 62; ten are finished) of alternating squares; all the squares seem to be co-existing together and a new quilt top will someday be completed.

I think.





The Students and the Headmistress

bookI had moved from teaching high school English to a couple of non-teaching assignments before landing, after Columbine, in Safety.  

I loved it. I was working with the administrators and the local police, including my two new BFF’s, two very large officers — one African-American; one Hawaiian — who were quite imposing, incredibly funny and coached middle school and high school sports in their free time.

Then, six weeks into the first semester, I got a call:  We need you to teach two periods of English. 

Were they kidding?  I hadn’t been in a classroom in years. 

I called my Sister Peggy at the school in question and asked about the two classes.

Oh my God, she sputtered, those are all the reject kids from every other English II class and have had one sub after another.  They’re out of control and have even thrown desks at the regular teachers who’ve gone in there. Is it too early for you to retire???

ah geez…

The next Monday, I showed up in the administration building to say hello to the principal, who was new and already unhappy with me because  a few of her decisions had been overruled due to safety considerations.

She told me she had no idea what work the kids had done (ah, not much), but that they followed standards (except when she was called down to reprimand them).  I asked if that included desk throwing before heading to the classroom.

She avoided me after that.

The bell rang, the kids slowly meandered in and the mutual stare-down began.

Yes, I am a real teacher and, yes, I’m here til the end of the year and, no, I won’t put up with anything. Don’t try it.

They looked at each other, no doubt taking bets on how long it would take before I, too, disappeared.

We had gotten through the first couple of days, still feeling our way, when the doorway suddenly darkened.  There were my two BFF’s, smiling broadly, and holding a grande Starbucks.

They could barely conceal their grins as they walked in like they owned the place.

Well rehearsed, the officers read the kids the riot act.

Give her any trouble: you deal with us.

I sipped on my latte.

It was hard not to laugh. By the time the two had left, the kids were positive the officers were SWAT, their teacher was SWAT and probably packing heat, and that there was no hope of the students regaining control.

Whatever worked…

By second semester, we were settled into the academic routine, the kids were doing very well and preparing to read A Separate Peace — a novel set in a 1940’s eastern prep school about the loss of innocence.

My students were from a lower socio-economic neighborhood, 40% on free or reduced meals, primarily minority and many immigrants or first generation Americans. 

Prep school? Boarding school? They hadn’t a clue.

I took time to explain the concept.  I asked if they wanted to role play prep school for a day.  They did.

The following Wednesday, my students showed up dressed in black pants or skirts, crisp white shirts neatly tucked into waistbands, black ties and looking very sharp. They all stood when I walked into the room, saying in unison Good afternoon, Ms. H,  and then quietly sitting down when I nodded my greeting.

They sat up straight, raised their hands, stood to ask or answer questions.  I had asked some colleagues to visit during the two classes.  The kids promptly stood up, saying Good afternoon, Mr. or Ms. —.

Then, someone grabbed the principal, who was showing the campus to a new vice principal, and directed them to my room without sharing what we were doing. The two walked into a class of uniformed students who, without prompting, stood in unison saying Good afternoon, Ms. G.,  before being told to resume sitting.

Both administrators looked shocked.

I asked in anyone had a question for our “headmistress” — one student did. He stood, politely asked his question, said Thank you after she answered and then quietly sat back down.

The principal looked at me and started backing into the whiteboard.  She had no idea what to make of it — an entire class of of former desk-throwing, out of control, defiant students now in sitting bolt upright in black and white uniforms, eyes front, hands properly folded on their desks, no wiggling, no talking, on task and perfectly well-behaved.

I just smiled and quietly said, If there’s nothing more, we do have our lesson to complete.

They left, and when they were well out of earshot, the students and I broke into laughter.

I could be as big a pain as my kids.


Hearts & Flowers


Valentine’s Day in high schools is somewhat like Halloween, only worse because the only most popular students are smothered with hearts and flowers. 

It’s a steady stream of Student Government kids waltzing in and out of classrooms, delivering long-stemmed carnations and short-versed Valentine prose to the fortunate few who gleefully add the new blooms to their growing bouquets.  The rest of the class smile forced smiles, grateful that Valentine’s Day happens only once a year.

Many English teachers, knowing that classroom interruptions were imminent, assigned poetry writing on Valentine’s Day — usually a combination of Loving Lyrics and Venomous Verses. 

Your hair is as golden as the sunlight on a summer’s day…

Your breath is as foul as cow patties in a heat wave…

Not in my class. 

I decided early on that my job also included doing my best to prevent pregnancies among my hormonal students. So why not take full advantage of Valentine’s Day to re-enforce the message?

The lesson plan was fairly simple.

I’d keep the girls inside and send the boys into the hall. 

Round I Directions were given separately to each group:  Brainstorm all the qualities you look for in a partner and have a scribe write down all those qualities.

They went at it, oblivious to the other group and completely unconcerned about what the other gender was up to.

Round II:  Now, agree on the top ten qualities and then put them in order of importance.  Again, write them down.

That took some time, debating the numerous qualities and then putting the ten in the order of importance.  I won’t say the lists were predictable, but they were. 

Year after year, predictable.

Once the lists were finished, the young men were brought back into the room.  I then asked one person from each group to write their list, in the order of importance, on the chalkboard.

And waited patiently for the predictable response.

The girls listed, more or less in order of importance: integrity, ambition, responsible, a sense of humor, kind, and so on down the list, with a smile or eyes completing their to ten.

The boys looked at the girls’ list, looked at one another and realized they had probably blown both the assignment and any future social life.

The boys’ list? 

As I recall, it was pretty much a draw between tits and ass, or ass and tits, in the top two positions, followed closely by legs, figure, sexy, smile, eyes (more or less in order) and finally wrapping up with honesty.

The girls were appalled. They were seriously offended. They looked accusingly at their male classmates, yelling is this really why you guys ask us out?  The boys were now cowering in the opposite corner. The girls immediately decided to cancel all Valentine’s Day dates.

The boys alternated between looking sheepish and protesting the assignment was a setup.

It was.

It was also an exercise in left hemisphere/right hemisphere interpretation of the world, but that was lost on the girls who grew increasingly indignant, loudly vowing not to date again until they were adults and could meet more mature men.

Alas, from what I’ve read in other blogs of single young women, the maturity part probably wasn’t in the cards, but, judging from what I heard later from some of my graduating girls, that Valentine’s lesson was a gift did keep some of the girls on track, and not pregnant, for graduation and college.




An Unexpected History

Century Quilt Top

I have officially completed the top of the Century Quilt without harming myself or the sewing machine. It just goes to show what can be completed in the dead of winter when one is (a) retired with no responsibilities other than feeding the cat and (b) there are no little ones underfoot.

While I was ripping out far too many seams, swearing at my stupidity and the @#($%&  mess of tangled thread, bent needles and/or sewing machine, a chance remark by a dear friend regarding the cultural and historical context of quilting got me thinking in a non-sewing direction.

I knew nothing about the history of quilts so it was a very healthy diversion from throwing out everything and taking up solitaire as a hobby.

I also had noted a trend as I started seeking out quilting blogs and websites when I needed help or advice, which happened a whole lot. Most of the sites began with Insert your favorite profanity here before proceeding with troubleshooting remedies.

I found I had remembered words my dad had learned in WWII and had unintentionally used in front of us kids.

That made me wonder more about the culture surrounding quilting.  I also wondered about the politics of quilting, given that most of the women I know aren’t especially silent, especially on matters of importance, and their opinions surface in all kinds of formats.

A little investigation quickly showed that women were not terribly silent in the past and politics played a very major role in quilts.

Apparently, quilting was not all that common in early American history, or any history for that matter, except for the 1 Per Centers who could afford fabric.  For the average woman, material was far too expensive and time was better spent spinning, weaving and sewing clothes or mending blankets. It wasn’t until much later, when affordable fabrics were available that quilting became commonplace.

American quilting designs were grounded in religion and politics, God’s Eye (see below) as a reminder of both God’s protection and religious freedom, but so much about quilts and quilting has been romanticized over time. 

Quilting bees? ah, no.  Maybe a friend or two, but the romantic notion of women coming together, singing and sewing, is not much more than fiction unless religious or political groups brought women together for one cause or another. 

Given the tangles of thread, I suspect there was more muttering than singing.

There is an entire mythology that has grown around women’s quilts and is more wishful thinking than fact.  This includes the fiction surrounding quilts and the Underground Railroad ~ for example, Jacob’s Ladder Myth, with a black center for the chimney, symbolic of a safe house for run-away slaves on the trail to the North and freedom.  

That said, many Northern women did support the Abolitionist movement, renaming many of their quilt patterns in support of ending slavery. Job’s Tears became Slave Chain by 1825, far in advance of the Civil War.  Freed black women and white women alike formed Female Anti-Slavery Societies. Anti-Slavery Fairs sold donated quilts, clothing and decorative items to underwrite schools for black children, circulate anti-slavery petitions, etc.

These fairs also found their way into churches and other community causes before becoming the basis for raising money for both sides during the Civil War. Southern women made enough money with their Gunboat Quilts to purchase three ironclad gunboats.  Both sides turned their focus to helping soldiers by sewing comfort quilts for them.  It is estimated that the Union women donated over 250,000 quilts to soldiers while Confederate women, with sewing skills more aligned with embroidery and facing a scarcity of material, made quilts for the southern soldiers from any available material, including rugs.

Quilting made bold political statements in the Civil War era, with Log Cabin (a nod to Lincoln’s birthplace and Union support) a favorite among northern women as were Liberty Star and The Lincoln Platform.

Women silent? ah, no. Even without a vote, women were not silent.

Imagine crawling into bed with your sweetie under the Drunkard’s Path Quilt, a favorite of the Temperance Movement, or a Suffrage Quilt promoting the women’s right to vote.

With the 20th century, there was a whole new movement in the quilting world: AIDS, pro-war, anti-war, anti-violence against women…the list seems endless with both men and women finding a voice in their quilts.

Of course, at the top of the list, quilts are a still form of meditation for the quilter, assuming things are going right and ^$*@#&($&  thread is not tangling, as well as a source of protection and comfort for the recipient.

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