School security in Iowa takes on renewed priority

Proposed law would require districts to work with law enforcement

Students leave at the end of the school day Friday at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids. Local law enforcement officials say they often work with school districts on security planning. A bill under consideration in the Iowa Legislature would require it. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)
Students leave at the end of the school day Friday at Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids. Local law enforcement officials say they often work with school districts on security planning. A bill under consideration in the Iowa Legislature would require it. (Liz Martin/The Gazette)

His southeastern Iowa students and staff know what do if a fire breaks out in their school, or if a tornado touches down nearby, Superintendent Dave Harper said.

For those emergencies, there are drills to prepare students and clear action plans.

“But do we have all the way down to a natural disaster or an active shooter plan? No,” said Harper, who is a shared superintendent for the Sigourney and Pekin school districts, both near Ottumwa.

It’s something he’s working to change, especially after a mass shooting earlier this month inside a Parkland, Fla., high school left 17 dead.

“We need an active shooter piece in that,” Harper said. “We’re trying to think of a plan that would be all-encompassing, to cover any possible scenario we could think of.”

Schools in Iowa soon could be legally required to have such security plans. Senate File 2253, which the Senate advanced earlier this month, would require all districts to have plans for each school building by June 30, 2019, that contemplate active shooters and natural disasters. It would require districts to consult with local law enforcement and emergency managers to develop the strategy.

The measure initially would have required the districts to share the plans at least once a year with parents. But that provision was removed out of concern that such broad distribution could risk putting the strategy in the wrong hands.

Many — though not all — schools in Iowa already have security plans. But even existing plans may be inadequate, and districts are inconsistent in involving students — not only staff — in the training.


And as it is now, law enforcement officials provide consultation to schools and help staff train — but only when asked.

Harper met Friday with the Jefferson County sheriff, he said, to go over a draft of a plan in case of an intruder.

“The attention gets put more on it when a tragedy like that happens,” Harper said, adding he began developing the plan before the Parkland shooting. “That shouldn’t be the case. We should have a plan.”

Throughout Eastern Iowa, law enforcement officials said they often work with school districts to develop plans.

“It’s completely up to them to reach out to us and ask us to help,” said Iowa City police Sgt. Derek Frank. “We’re absolutely happy to do it.”

In Iowa City, Frank said discussions about school security have included the police and fire departments, as well as the Johnson County Sheriff’s Office. The various agencies offer their expertise on several types of threats, from active shooters to fires to tornadoes.

Schools “send us a working draft of their emergency plan for us to review before they make it official,” Frank said.

Exactly how many Iowa schools are prepared for most types of threats — including active shooters — is unclear. In the Statehouse this month, legislators discussed data indicating some Iowa schools do not have security plans.

About this story:

In the wake of the February 14 shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and a the passing of a bill by Iowa Senators that would require school districts to establish security plans for their buildings, we set out to determine which schools in our coverage area had security plans and how local law enforcement did or did not have a role in crafting those plans.

To that end, reporters Molly Duffy and Lee Hermiston interviewed multiple school and law enforcement officials about those plans, how they were crafted, how law enforcement consulted on those plans and how school staff train to ensure those plans are effective.

We aim to be transparent in our reporting process. Read more at Was this information:

Not Helpful

The most recent information was collected in 2015 through a voluntary survey, said Iowa Department of Education spokeswoman Staci Hupp. About 88 percent of schools that responded reported having plans.

But of the schools that reported having security plans, less than 10 percent indicated having a “high quality” security plan. Those would “take an all-hazards approach” and consider all settings and times of an emergency, according to survey data shared by the department.

Although 530 public and private schools were surveyed, only 249 responded. The survey was funded by a since-expired federal grant, and as school districts are not required to report emergency plans to the department, no more current, comprehensive data exists, Hupp said.

In both Cedar Rapids and Iowa City, school districts have security plans for every school, administrators said, and both districts also run regular lockdown drills.

In the Cedar Rapids district, staff and students practice drills at least every semester. The district has adopted “run, hide, fight” protocols endorsed by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“While it is unfortunate that we live in a time when this kind of preparedness is necessary, we must all work together — as we do even in our own homes or when we patronize public spaces or private businesses — to be prepared for an emergency,” Superintendent Brad Buck said in a message to parents this month.

In addition to crisis training and drills, the Cedar Rapids district has police officers stationed in some schools full-time.

“Police Department School Resource Officers in area high schools and middle schools, along with Police PALs in elementary schools, work to build positive relationships with students,” Cedar Rapids police Deputy Chief Tom Jonker said in a statement. “The relationships and trust that officers build with students in local schools cannot be (overstated). It helps with information gathering and has provided opportunities for interventions before issues escalate.”


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In Linn County, Sheriff Brian Gardner said the office has been successful in developing active shooter and intruder plans for the schools in its jurisdiction.

“It appears that the Linn County schools have taken that issue seriously already,” he said. “It appears most of the schools have security plans and we did, will and are able to assist them in devising those plans.”

The training can be “as much or as little” as the school districts want, Gardner said, noting training in ALICE — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter and Evacuate — can range from classroom presentations to realistic drills.

In the Iowa City school district, school staff have participated in mock violent intruder drills and received ALICE training since 2013, according to a district statement.

In the days after the Florida shooting, the Iowa City district decided to invite students and parents to participate in active shooter drills also. Those will take place in April at the high schools.

Iowa City police Sgt. Frank said ALICE active shooter training in a school offers authorities the opportunity to see training in action and troubleshoot any issues. Training includes a hands-on scenario with role players.

“It’s their opportunity to be able to be put in that situation,” Frank said. “It’s one thing to think about what someone has told you, it’s another thing to be submersed in a situation.”

The Johnson County Sheriff’s Office also offers ALICE training to schools in its jurisdiction, said Capt. Gary Kramer. While the training is available to schools, churches and businesses in the county, it’s not required, he said.


“We don’t have the power to mandate anyone to do that type of thing,” said Kramer, who said the office has been offering ALICE training for a few years. “I think we have reached out to the schools and said, ‘This is something we’re offering. Are you interested?’”

l Comments: (319) 398-8330;

Rod Boshart of The Gazette Des Moines Bureau contributed.



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