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State To Help Schools Plan For Shooters, Other Disasters

Student safety is always high on the minds of principals, superintendents and school boards. But emergency response plans vary from district to district. And the state of Vermont is stepping in to help schools prepare for armed attacks, natural disasters and other events.

Statistically speaking, the local school is one of the safest places for a child to be. But school shootings at Columbine, Virginia Tech and last year in Newtown, Conn., have shown the catastrophic impact one attack can have.

Colonel Thomas L’Esperance heads the Vermont State Police, and he and other public safety officials want to improve emergency preparedness at schools across the state.

“The safety piece is probably the most critical component, because what we’ve found is across the state that the safety plans vary from one area to another,” L’Esperance says. “So this person that’s placed into this position will get everybody on the same page across the state, so they’re working off the same sheet of music. So when an incident takes place they’ll all react the same across the state.”

"I think if you go back to Columbine, just the approach police took during Columbine was set up a perimeter, and then wait for more police officers to get there. And it just didn't work."- Colonel Thomas L'Esperance, Vermont State Police

The Department of Public Safety began looking this week for an outside contractor to oversee statewide school crisis planning. L’Esperance says his agency will enlist a fulltime person to come up with plans not only for school shooters, but for fires, floods or other major events.

Gary Margolis, a former police chief at the University of Vermont, has become a national expert on school safety planning. His firm, Margolis Healy & Associates, trains school administrators on the latest safety practices.

Margolis says the landscape has changed dramatically for schools over the past decade. And he says administrators need help navigating the new world of crisis prevention and response.

“Do they have reasonable access control policies, reasonable visitor management policies, are they using cameras and locks and access control the way it needs to be used?” Margolis says. “These are all technologies that the modern principal and superintendent has to now learn.”

L’Esperance says the new consultant will help install protocols not only at schools, but at the local law enforcement agencies that will respond to emergencies.

“I think if you go back to Columbine, just the approach police took during Columbine was: set up a perimeter, and then wait for more police officers to get there,” L’Esperance says. “And it just didn’t work. And what they’ve learned over time is we have to get in there. We have to train our police officers to get in there.”

L’Esperance says he hopes the position will eventually help with anti-bullying and substance abuse prevention programs. The state is accepting applications for the school safety contract until Feb. 14.

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