Education

Iowa won't check new school security plans

Law sets requirements for districts, but not for state

Cedar Rapids Community School District’s security director Eric Werling (left) looks Jan. 16 at sight lines into a classroom as he takes a walk-through of Andrew Jackson Elementary School with principal Nick Duffy at the northwest Cedar Rapids school. Werling is in charge of creating districtwide security protocols. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids Community School District’s security director Eric Werling (left) looks Jan. 16 at sight lines into a classroom as he takes a walk-through of Andrew Jackson Elementary School with principal Nick Duffy at the northwest Cedar Rapids school. Werling is in charge of creating districtwide security protocols. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Iowa schools are creating emergency plans or updating existing ones to satisfy a June 30 deadline set in a new law, but then no one at the state level is required to approve the strategies — or even review them.

The new law, passed in 2018 in the wake of several school shootings including the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Fla., requires public and private school districts in Iowa to have emergency plans for responding to natural disasters and to active shooters. The plans must be unique for each building in the school district, and each building must conduct annual drills.

The plans, under the new law, must be “high quality,” developed in conjunction with local law enforcement and emergency response agencies and kept confidential from the public — and thus potential active shooters. The plans must be completed by June 30.

But the law does not require them to be verified or vetted. Districts simply will report to the state Education Department whether they have finished them.

In essence, the law requires district leaders be taken at their word that they have completed the plans in time and met the law’s requirements.

Concerns were raised about the lack of oversight when the law was being debated by legislators, although it ultimately passed the Iowa House and Iowa Senate with unanimous votes.

“It does absolutely nothing,” Rep. Cindy Winckler, D-Davenport, said during the debate over Senate File 2364. “It is hard to take a positive vote on such incomplete work.”

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Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange City, said he disagreed with the assertion that the bill was nothing more than a “feel-good” proposal. Wheeler, who managed the bill in the House, said the measure was necessary “in today’s world.”

Staci Hupp, a spokeswoman for the state Education Department, said the law is part of a “holistic” approach to school safety taken by the state. The department also has offered resources to districts to help ensure their plans are high quality, and the department has provided or sponsored training for school officials, for example, to recognize behavioral issues and potentially violent behavior, Hupp said.

“We really are doing our best as an agency to support schools as they develop these plans, as we ultimately try to keep our kids safe,” Hupp said. “It’s a piece of the overall picture.”

Roark Horn, executive director of the organization that represents school administrators across the state, praised the Education Department, lawmakers, Gov. Kim Reynolds and local school leaders for working together to enhance school safety.

“Undoubtedly, the collaborative efforts of all these entities have made schools even safer learning environments for our students and teachers,” Horn said in an email.

Most local school leaders contacted for this article said they have long had in place emergency response plans. Some said their plans already met the requirements established in the new law; others said their plans needed minor updates.

However, the Education Department in 2018 said that while 88 percent of Iowa school districts reported having security plans, fewer than 10 percent were “high-quality” plans that included drills for school staff.

“Those plans didn’t necessarily meet the law because we were finding variability in quality and the plans weren’t always tailored to every school in a district as they need to be now,” Hupp said.

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Districts will report to the department whether their emergency plans meet the new state requirements during the department’s annual spring collection from districts of myriad data.

Here are snapshots of how some districts from across the state say they are handling their emergency response plans:

Cedar Rapids

The district long has had a comprehensive crisis response manual that sets forth plans for its 31 schools and met the new law’s requirements, district security administrator Laurel Day said.

In fact, the plans were highlighted during Education Department training sessions as an example for others to follow, Day said.

“Everything in the new law either was in (Cedar Rapids schools’) plan already, or we had it ready to roll out before the deadline,” said Eric Werling, whose position as school security and crisis response supervisor was created in the summer of 2018.

This school year, Werling has introduced a school visitor check-in system that requires scanning a government-issued ID and is preparing staff for enhanced lockdown drills that will teach students to run, hide or fight rather than only shelter in place.

The first teacher training on the new drills was held recently at an elementary school and additional security tweaks are expected to go before the Cedar Rapids school board in June.

The district’s plan “is a living, breathing document,” Day said. “It’s continuously updated.”

Cedar Falls

Dan Conrad, the district’s director of secondary education, facilitates the district’s safety committee. He said members “had to do very little” to update the plan. He said the committee helped develop it years ago and keeps it current.

Davenport

Bruce McKee, a district security and student outreach specialist and former Davenport police officer, is tasked with constructing the district’s new safety plan.

McKee’s is a newly created position, and the district plan includes a team of roughly 40 security professionals, two new school resource officers and introducing security personnel to elementary schools.

At the same time, the district is making drastic cuts to its budget to meet state requirements.

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The “majority” of McKee’s time has been spent working on the state-mandated plan, district director of operations Mike Maloney said.

“The approach involved looking at what we’ve got and evaluating and comparing it against the standards and doing the research on best practice to bring it into the plan and pulling it together in a way that gives direction to individual buildings and administrators,” McKee said. “It’s a lot of research to make sure its best practice and best suits what our district needs. They don’t come out and tell you exactly what your plan should look like and involve — it just tells you to follow the structure.”

Sioux City

Superintendent Paul Gausman said the district has long had an emergency response guide that exceeds the requirements in the new state law.

He said staff members are trained and drilled annually to make “evidence-based decisions” in the face of crisis.

Waterloo

Safety officer Dan Huff said the district holds more drills than what is required in the law, including a drill for evacuating students to an alternative site in the case of an active shooter or dangerous intruder, or for other safety reasons like a fire or gas leak.

Each building in the district has a designated safety chair who is responsible for coordinating drills. Those individuals meet monthly.

“We’ve got people who work pretty hard at it,” Huff noted. “It’s just a priority here at Waterloo schools to stay on top of our safety drills.”

Megan Valley of the Quad City Times, Andrew Wind of the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Courier, Bret Hayworth of the Sioux City Journal and Molly Duffy of The Gazette contributed to this report.

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