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Beyond the vestibule: A look into how mid-Michigan schools handle emergency management

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Rick Brewer
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WCMU File
T.L. Handy Middle School in Bay City.

Being a school superintendent does not come with a manual for handling emergency management. The Chippewa Hills School District and Bay City Public Schools explain how they mitigate risk and handle the emotional toll of trying to stay one step ahead.

Geographically speaking, the Chippewa Hills School District is the second largest in the lower peninsula.
And even though the entire district has less than two thousand students, getting into one of their schools is a process.

"This is what's considered the secure vestibule," said Chippewa Hills superintendent Bob Grover on a tour of the high school. "You can't get into the school. If you have your card reader, you can scan in, or you have to come over like a parent does. And they have to press to get in."

Vestibule is a word that wasn’t used in schools 20 years ago. Today it’s the norm in American schools. But the latest mass shooting has changed one thing. It’s made it clearer for Superintendent Grover that you cannot prepare for everything.

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"It's impossible to do," said Grover. "I remember very vividly as the principal. One of my teachers saying, at what point do I open my window and run? And I didn't have the answer. I don't know. Nobody knows. This latest incident where the guy actually barricaded himself in one room and took out multiple students and adults in one room. That's nothing like what was happening at even Oxford or anything. They're all a little different."

"Unfortunately, school tragedies, shootings are not anything new right now," said Bay City Public Schools superintendent Stephen Bigelow.

Soon after the shooting in Texas, Bigelow wanted to address his community. He wrote a detailed Facebook post about all the ways they are trying to minimize the risk of tragedy and the resources available to students. But some parents want even more transparency.

"Regardless of how much we do, there's always somebody saying, well, you're not doing enough," Bigelow mentioned. "And that's really a difficult line, certainly. The tough part with anytime we're dealing with student tragedies is people want us to be able to ensure them that their kids will be safe. And we will do everything that we absolutely can during the course of the day to make sure that their children are safe. But there are always unique situations that pop up. And so, we're always attempting to stay one step ahead."

While Chippewa Hills and Bay City differ in many ways, the latest shooting has come at a time when everyone is on edge and emotions are high because of stress from the pandemic.

"I believe that many of us have post-traumatic stress syndrome of some sort," said Bigelow. "And we do not even realize it. I am seeing bizarre behaviors in classrooms from students, extreme behaviors, people who are burned out. Our teaching staff, they are burned out. It's not just teaching staff, it's across the board. I'm probably burned out. I'm just not aware of it because there's a job to do."

Just days after the Texas shooting, Farwell and Rogers City Area schools both received threats from students. Farwell closed all of its schools May 27. There were no acts of violence reported. Amid the onslaught of media coverage and threats at neighboring schools, Grover says there’s power in trying to create a sense of routine and normalcy for students.

"Did my counselor see more people this week? Yep. Would you expect her to? Yep. We try not to shut down," said Grover. "We try to maintain some normalcy. Consistency, and normalcy has its merits. And if we can do that for our kids, sometimes that can ease just a situation for a lot of them, those that need the extra support we're there for them."

"What's so troubling about this whole thing, though, is we know that students learn best in an environment where they feel safe and comfortable," said Bigelow.

"But it seems like each year, we're getting a little bit closer to schools looking more like prisons and less like the learning environment that they should be. And that's really troubling. I guess that says something for where we are as a society right now."

Rick: While school shootings remain rare and schools are safe places, Bigelow says he and his staff have not figured out the balance between how to keep students safe but not make them feel like they’re in prison. It’s a tight rope he will likely walk for the foreseeable future.

From golf balls to barricades, schools have been making investments in emergency management long before the recent mass shooting in Texas.

One big issue, not all schools use the same language in an emergency response.

There are no universal standards or one method of designing emergency management plans in schools.

Recently, the Bay City Public Schools invested in getting door barricades for every door in its 13 buildings.

"There's two holes that are drilled in the ground right there," said Bigelow while demonstrating how the barricades work. "And it's a metal part that looks like a u-bar. It's just solid metal. And it goes right down into those holes. And when somebody tries to open a door, they can't. There's a special crowbar that goes under the threshold of the door and pops it open. So, the police carry one in their car. And we have one locked in the main office in case that happens."

The district is in the process of installing the barricades. Part of the reason it’s been delayed has to do with supply chain issues and finding the labor to install them. And this was not a cheap investment.

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"I think it cost us approximately $500,000 for all of our doors throughout the entire district," said Bigelow.

About 65 miles east, the Chippewa Hills has schools in multiple counties, which means schools do not always run the same safety protocols.

Some schools are trained to run the “Alice” procedure while others are trained to execute “Run, Hide, Fight.” They are very similar, but the key difference is language. Because when kids or staff change schools, they have to learn the differences and new terminology.

Some of the procedures call for self-defense in classrooms, like buckets of gold balls or hockey pucks.

"There's a couple who have done that, on their own accord," said Grover.

Since Chippewa Hills has schools in Mecosta and Isabella County, emergency responses can differ from county to county and even city to city. That’s why the district has held meetings between law enforcement, first responders and school administrators to try and clear up any possible language confusion. Grover says they’re meeting again in the near future. It was planned before the latest shooting in Texas.

"So we're all in one room, and we're talking and we're going okay, do we all know what this means? And the first answer was, No. Do we now? We think so? Because we're meeting and we're figuring this out. So now we're going to have some commonalities," said Grover.

Grover wishes there were state standards or a manual that laid out all the terminology and practices for schools to follow. But he says that will likely never happen. At the end of the day, Grover is trying to manage the most important asset.

"That’s the key word, time," Grover added. "Anytime we can either gain time or reduce time, game time in that it takes longer for that perpetrator to do anything, gain time, so that the police have a time to respond. And yet we can do either one of those. That's a benefit."

When someone walks into T.L. Handy Middle School, they have to present identification and the desk attendant runs the card through the Raptor system

"And it does a background, a full background check on you instantly," said Bigelow.

The attendant can also call administrators to help handle a possible tense situation. And when you walk into the main hallway at T.L. Handy Middle School, there is a poster with information about the “Okay to Say” program.

"It's been around now for a while throughout the state of Michigan, but it's a way for students to report anything concerning to them and they can do it anonymously. So, if they're being bullied at school, for example, and they want somebody to know, all they have to do is go on to “Okay to Say” and they're able to report it. And the school, the administrator gets those notices, so they can check into it," said Bigelow.

Bigelow mentioned there are a lot of important resources in his school district: social workers, counselors, even a behavioral health mobile response team. The problem is the positions are difficult to fill. Bigelow says one of the biggest challenges is trying to reach students who don’t ask for help and are good at hiding it.