Under pressure: Cape Elizabeth schools walk ‘fine line’ on emergency preparedness

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Last of three stories.

Cape Elizabeth High School Assistant Principal Nathan Carpenter said the true first responders to a school emergency are those in the building at the time a threat is posed.

And the School Department, he said, is constantly looking for ways to improve its emergency plan so those responders are as prepared as possible.

As a result, Carpenter said, the department is incorporating aspects of ALICE training into their plan, while considering the “fine line” between preparedness and causing unnecessary fear and anxiety for students and staff.

ALICE is an acronym for “alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate,” and instructs individuals to take action when a threat is posed, rather than taking a passive approach as practiced in previous lockdown scenarios.

“I don’t want to create a culture of fear,” Carpenter said. “It’s about working out how to do it in a way that’s appropriate while working on the skills you need to develop. … You have to consider what you could lose in the process of trying to get people prepared.”

Following the guidelines of ALICE practices, the alert and inform steps of the new procedure allow students and staff to know the details of a crisis as it’s taking place. That’s a departure from the old plan, where code words or phrases were broadcast during drills and emergencies.

The lockdown step of the procedure instructs teachers to decide whether evacuation is possible during an emergency and, if not, how to effectively barricade students into the classroom or confront the intruder as a last resort –interrupting their thought process by standing up, yelling or throwing things at the attacker.

Teachers are trained in different maneuvers to identify which of the three is best suited to the emergency situation at hand.

“There’s no one size fits all when it comes to emergency response,” Carpenter said.

He stressed that the district is not looking to eliminate lockdown drills, but to adjust them to allow teachers and students to be more empowered in deciding which course of action would be the most effective in any given emergency.

“Lockdowns totally serve a purpose depending on the time and place,” Carpenter said. “But in certain cases, instead of sitting there and being passive, it may be better for students and staff to be proactive.”

Last resort

The “C” in ALICE (“counter”) is something Carpenter said he wouldn’t advise unless all other options have been exhausted.

“We don’t want anyone to have to engage with an intruder,” Carpenter said.

If evacuation is possible, that should be the first course of action. If not, Carpenter said staff and students should improve their lockdown procedures by barricading their doors.

“Countering is the bottom line, ultimate last resort,” Carpenter said. “I wouldn’t advocate anyone to engage, but inherently that sometimes ends up happening.”

Some training includes active-shooter or armed-assailant drills in which participants practice each step of the acronym in a simulation with someone acting as an intruder with, in some cases, a weapon, such as an Airsoft gun.

According to 2014 report from the National Association of School Psychologists and the National Association for School Resource Officers, armed assailant drills have the “potential to empower staff and save lives, but without proper caution, they can risk causing harm to participants.”

Further, it states that research supports the effectiveness of lockdown drills carried out according to best practice, but there isn’t currently any research on the effectiveness of armed assailant drills.

Last August, Carpenter, Cape Elizabeth Middle School Assistant Principal Doug Perley, and district nurses attended a two-day workshop in Biddeford based around ALICE training, led and attended predominantly by law enforcement officials.

Some of the simulations performed during training, he said, were scary.

“When you’re just sitting there waiting, it’s a pretty hopeless feeling … (but) I don’t envision us simulating these horrific situations,” Carpenter said. “We don’t want to create a culture of fear.”

This spring, Carpenter said, teachers are simply beginning to engage in discussions by assessing what could be used to effectively barricade their doors and where potential points of egress in their rooms are if lockdown or evacuation were necessary.

“Conversations with students are already happening, but we’re working towards a more formalized look at ‘what could this room do,'” he said. “I think we’ll gradually move to the counter piece … but for now (we are) focusing on when to evacuate and where and how to barricade.”

Determining ‘best practice’

Once it is determined what “best practice” looks like for the district, they’ll begin practicing and discussing procedures more formally with students. How those discussions and practices go, Carpenter said, will depend on grade level.

“It’s not going to look as proactive at second grade as it looks in high school,” he said. “We’re just trying to empower people to make good decisions … in younger grades, more of that responsibility will be put on the teachers.”

Still, Carpenter said, no matter how much you plan, it’s tough to tell how anyone will react to a hypothetical situation.

“We practice lockdowns, but when fight and flight kicks in, some kids would be entirely inclined to leave or fight,” Carpenter said, noting that when he was a teacher, after lockdown drills, he would hear students saying that they wouldn’t stay in the room if there was an intruder.

“What struck me was students would be talking about (it as) if these were real, what kids would do differently,” Carpenter said. Adapting the district’s lockdown procedures addresses those comments comprehensively.

After drills, Carpenter said, it is important to have everyone from students to law enforcement involved in conversations of what went well and what could be improved.

“In the current climate, it’s become more real obviously … providing students the time to talk about what they’re feeling is important,” he said.

He added that members of the Police Department will likely attend ALICE training this summer so that their department will be on the same page as schools. The district does not have a school resource officer, but has been discussing the possibility of adding the position during recent budget workshops.

While there isn’t an officer present in the schools at all times, interim Superintendent Howard Colter said the schools are lucky to have the police and fire stations located near all three schools while discussing emergency response plans in February.

In the mean time, it’s up to the school staff and administration to work out how plans should be adapted.

“What’s right or wrong can be debatable, but doing nothing is the worst thing you could do,” Carpenter said. “Good taste (and) common sense will guide us.”

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

The series

Part 1: The challenges facing efforts to integrate mental-health support in area schools.

This week: Lockdown and active-shooter procedures, and the role of school resource officers.

Mental health resources

• Cumberland County Crisis Response: Toll-free crisis intervention and suicide hotline, available to any resident of Cumberland County 24 hours a day at 888-568-1112. More information at https://goo.gl/8jjaas.

• NAMI Maine Helpline: Confidential helpline for peers, family members, friends, professionals and law enforcement, Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-4 p.m. Toll-free at 800-464-5767, press “1.” Email: helpline@namimaine.org. More info at https://goo.gl/FWCAoG.

• Maine 211: Connect with specialists 24/7; a free and confidential service. Dial 211, text your zip code to 898-211, email Info@211Maine.org, or go online at https://211maine.org/.

• Maine Behavioral Health:  24/7 information about treatment options. A “Rapid Access” program also allows callers to receive a mental health assessment quickly to begin receiving services. Call 844-292-0111.

• Federal Bureau of Investigation: To report a tip to the FBI Boston Office, which covers threats in the state of Maine, available 24/7, call 857-386-2000 or go online at: https://tips.fbi.gov/.

Cape Elizabeth High School Assistant Principal Nathan Carpenter, left, Pond Cove Elementary School nurse Erin Taylor, and interim Superintendent of Schools Howard Colter at the entrance of CEHS on Wednesday morning, April 4. Carpenter and Taylor were part of a group of administrators and nurses who attended ALICE trainings last August. The district is working towards incorporating aspects of the training into its emergency response plan.