Under Pressure: At Westbrook Schools: their emergency preparedness plan isn't sitting on a shelf

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This is the third article in a three-part series.

WESTBROOK – Training and practicing for emergencies can be a stressful and nerve-wracking experience for students and staff, but the Westbrook School Department has adopted a new model of emergency drills that is aimed at taking some of that anxiety away.

Superintendent Peter Lancia said central office administration has been working on adopting the right approach to emergency drills since 2016, an effort led by Assistant Superintendent Jodi Mezzanotte.

“Since I started (as superintendent) and Jodi came on board, it’s been our goal to review all of our policies and responses, not just with our school folks, but with Westbrook Police Department, Cumberland County Sheriff’s office, Westbrook Fire Department — all of the emergency folks — to help us look at our plans as they exist, as well as more contemporary thinking,” said Lancia, who started as superintendent in summer 2016, after more than 25 years as a classroom teacher, principal and most recently assistant superintendent in Westbrook. 

“An initial focus has been having a standard response protocol. We looked at national standards and what surrounding districts were using and adopted a protocol through I Love U Guys, an organization out of Colorado,” said Mezzanotte, who was hired as assistant superintendent in November 2016, after years of being a teacher and principal in Gorham.

According to the I Love U Guys Foundation, “a critical ingredient in the school safety recipe is the uniform classroom response.” Instead of having a response plan for every scenario, the I Love U Guys approach offers a standard response protocol that “is based not on individual scenarios but on the response” to lock downs, lockouts, evacuation and hazardous events.

A number of other nearby school districts, including Gorham, Windham and Bonny Eagle, to name a few, are using the same approach, Mezzanotte said.

Mezzanotte said the I Love U Guys Foundation approach, which the district adopted at the beginning of the school year, is a “really simple protocol” that is built on advice from national consultants who have experience dealing with emergencies and disasters. She said the system uses visual cues, icons and simple concepts so language is not a barrier to understanding protocol directives.

“In heightened stress situations, people take in information differently.” Mezzanotte said. 

She said all students are expected to understand the emergency response plan no matter their age or what building they go to school in.

“When we do our drills we are very sensitive to the kids we know will have a hard time or have a history of trauma and make sure they have an opportunity to know about the drill and ask questions before hand,” Mezzanotte said. “There are certain expectations when we practice a drill, but at the same time we don’t want to create any more stress for anyone.”

Lancia said staff typically checks back with students to get feedback about how the drill went from their perspective.

“We try to make these teachable moments,” he said.

While school leaders, staff and students are well-versed on the approach, Mezzanotte said there will be a workshop with city leaders  soon to make sure they understand the system should their paths cross during a school emergency. Westbrook police and fire departments are already active participants in the school’s disaster drills.

“The Westbrook police and fire departments have been amazing partners for the schools,” Lancia said.

During lockdowns, students are expected to move out of sight, remain silent and not open the classroom door while teachers secure the doors, turn off the lights, pull shades, move out of sight, maintain silence and take attendance.

A lockout has students take shelter in the school as staff members lock perimeter doors, increase situation awareness, take attendance and carry on classes as normal. This type of protocol could be used if, say a rabid animal was on campus or police were responding to criminal activity near one of the schools.

During an evacuation drill, students are told to bring their cellphones, but leave everything else and follow the instruction of teachers and staff, who will lead students to the evacuation location, take attendance and take note of any students who are unaccounted for, missing or injured. 

A hazard and safety strategy is used in times of a hurricane, tornado, hazardous material or earthquake. Students and staff are required to evacuate to a shelter area in times of hurricane or tornado, seal the room in the event of a hazardous material spill and drop and cover during earthquakes.

Mezzanotte said schools regularly practice evacuation drills, also known as fire drills, per the Maine Board of Education requirements and practice lock down drills twice a year. The Department of Education requires schools to hold two evacuation drills within the first two weeks of school. K-4 schools must hold an additional eight drills, 5-8 schools must hold an additional six drills and high schools must hold four extra drills.

Westbrook schools have also begun practicing lockout drills.

The common language and standard response approach to disaster and emergency drills stemmed from a tabletop session held last spring at the American Legion Hall. During the event, school officials, medical professionals, first responders and other members of the community gathered to talk about how to respond to a hypothetical situation in which a custodian died after opening a closet where volatile chemicals had mixed.

“Every department had action steps that came out of that,” Mezzanotte said. “One of the school’s action steps is we adopted that common language (approach).”

Practicing emergency response protocols will continue this spring when, on May 3, the school department will hold a “functional drill” in which Canal School students will practice evacuating the school campus for another location.

Lancia said the school district’s disaster and emergency protocol is intended to be continually reviewed as new practices and ways of responding to emergencies emerge. A safety committee, lead by Mezzanotte, has been set up and each school has its own safety team that regularly reviews school safety practices and drills.

“Our plan isn’t a plan that is sitting on the shelf. It is used everyday. It’s practices and it is a collaborative effort. The safety of our students and staff is a priority and we make it a priority through our actions,” Mezzanotte said.

Michael Kelley can be reached at 781-3661 x 125 or mkelley@keepmecurrent.com

Emily Kaster, training and exercise coordinator with the Cumberland County Emergency Management Agency (center) discusses plans for an evacuation drill next month at Canal school with (from left) Westbrook Director of Student Intervention Katie Hersom, Westbrook Assistant Superintendent Jodi Mezzanotte, Cumberland County Emergency Management Agency Project Coordinator Ron Jones, Westbrook School Resource Officer Sandy Mailman and Westbrook Police Chief Janine Roberts. (Staff photo by Michael Kelley)

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/.

The series

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

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