Wisconsin's Safe Schools

“Not all criminal activity is terrorism, but terrorism is a criminal activity,” states Michael Kunesh, homeland security program manager for the state of Wisconsin.“If we take action to secure infrastructure, buildings and people against terrorism, it makes them safer against other hazards, whether intentional or unintentional.”

And so, the State of Wisconsin is improving school safety and security through a unique train-the-trainer crisis preparedness program that is financially supported by Homeland Security funding.

In the Beginning

The idea of secure schools first came from an Office of Justice Assistance group that realized that, while infrastructures like harbors and airports had received terrorism assessments, little had been done with Wisconsin’s schools. “And what had been done couldn’t be compared against other infrastructures to prioritize and decide on funding levels because schools are different,” says Kunesh. “We saw that schools would need a lot of work because they’re unique from other critical infrastructure.”

At the direction of the governor’s office, a group of school safety officers was formed to create a plan for protecting Wisconsin schools from terrorism. The planning committee includes safety officers from a number of Wisconsin school districts, representatives from the Office of Justice Assistance, representatives from the Center for Emergency Health & Safety for Schools, a representative from Wisconsin Emergency Management and a representative from Wisconsin School Safety Coordinators Association. “We asked questions like,  'What can we do to help our schools? What makes one school different from another?’” says Kunesh.

What the committee came up with is the Train the Trainer School Safety Workshop.

Program Highlights

The workshop is designed for a broad range of people directly involved in school security, including principals and assistant principals; school superintendents; school security personnel; school personnel responsible for emergency preparedness; school nurses; public health nurses; public health; emergency management team; police, fire and EMS; first responders; 911 dispatchers; and elected officials and staff.

The program has a number of learning objectives. At the end of the two-day workshop, attendees are able to:

? recognize the need for emergency and disaster preparedness for schools related to prevention, planning, response and recovery;

? lead individuals in schools and communities to develop effective strategies on man made disasters;

? understand and recognize safe school strategies through tactical site surveys using a multidisciplinary, all hazard vulnerability assessment approach;

? evaluate information gained in school and community activities related to Homeland Security activities; and

? gain an overview of the National Incident Management System (NIMS) and become familiar with implementation within school planning.

The Point

Ultimately, the workshop produces trainers who can teach staff in their school districts what to be aware of. It directs them to look at each facility through an evaluation. The evaluation provides information about shortcomings in building security, unmonitored areas, fire hazards, safety hazards and more.

“For example,” says Kunesh, “one of the things that is looked at is the library. The configuration of the bookshelves can provide cover for criminal activity, or the library can be laid out in a positive manner so that you have little or no cover in areas that can’t be observed by librarians.

“The same is true with parking lots. They can be designed to block or provide views from inside the building.”

The evaluation allows districts to build a plan to correct challenges. Some of the items noted in the evaluation cost money to change. “But a lot don’t,” says Kunesh.

Once corrections have been made, school districts are encouraged to perform a terrorism exercise. “The purpose is not just to train and practice,” says Kunesh, “but to find your shortcomings so that you can correct them.”

The workshop also offers training in large event management. Large events may involve an incident command center and require working with the police departments, fire departments and hazardous materials crews. “In working under a unified command and trying to mitigate a problem, school administrators have to understand how they fit into the command and pull the school into the operation,” Kunesh notes.

In the Future

Two workshops have already been held this spring, and five more are planned for the remainder of the year. Currently, no workshops are planned beyond this year, but Kunesh says they’ll conduct more if there’s a large request.

“We’re hoping to cover as many school districts as we can, so that the trainers can go back and do good assessments of the facilities within their districts,” says Kunesh. “We also hope that those trained will volunteer to help an adjoining school district, if such a request is made.

“The training is not to just make schools safe,” Kunesh sums. “It’s to evaluate buildings and make them secure, to protect the students inside against terrorist activity. It’s to make sure school administrators are better prepared to handle those situations, as well as other emergencies.

“If we make schools safer against terrorist activities, we make the schools safer overall.”