Education

New supervisor's insights could help keep children secure

Assessing security at Cedar Rapids schools

Cedar Rapids Community School District’s new security director, Eric Werling, (left) looks Wednesday at sight lines into a classroom as he takes a walk-through of Andrew Jackson Elementary School with Principal Nick Duffy. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Cedar Rapids Community School District’s new security director, Eric Werling, (left) looks Wednesday at sight lines into a classroom as he takes a walk-through of Andrew Jackson Elementary School with Principal Nick Duffy. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — A drawing of a dog, colored in with a brown marker, hung on the third-grade classroom’s door. Above it, a glass panel provided a view inside Mr. Patterson’s room.

Eric Werling peeked through it, surveying the Jackson Elementary classroom through a grim perspective.

If someone wanted to harm the children inside, what could they see?

“There’s bookshelves, bookcases, stuff in the room that we could move around” that would block an intruder’s view, he told the principal. “... Better than having to mash kids into a corner.”

As the first person to hold the title of School Security and Crisis Response Supervisor in the Cedar Rapids Community School District, Werling, 38, has been assessing security at each of the district’s 31 schools.

Three months into the job, he said he is focused on revamping the district’s crisis response plan, expanding de-escalation methods to prevent incidents and creating a districtwide threat assessment program.

Small tweaks, such as providing principals and teachers with recommendations about how to make their classroom layouts safer, also are underway.

“We don’t want to be saying, ‘We wish we had thought of this before,’” Jackson Elementary Principal Nick Duffy said, as he and Werling reviewed another classroom. “We want to be proactive.”

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A district safety and security task force recommended the creation of Werling’s position to the Cedar Rapids school board in July, after multiple shootings took place at schools across the country, including the massacre in Parkland, Fla., that left 17 dead.

The task force additionally asked that “Run, Hide, Fight” drills begin for students and staff this spring. Werling, who started at the district in October with an annual salary of $70,000, said those likely will be rolled out next school year.

The trainings will change the way Cedar Rapids students and staff are taught to respond to crises, which historically has been only to shelter in place. The new protocol will give students and staff additional options than only to hide, Werling said.

Other Iowa districts have adopted ALICE protocol — Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evaluate — and conduct lifelike shooter drills with staff and students.

Under Werling, the Cedar Rapids district is carefully evaluating its next steps and the psychological impact they could have on students.

“Even fire alarms are traumatic for some kids — because we’ve got kids that are refugees, kids that don’t speak English as a first language, kids that come from domestic abuse,” he said. “So anything that’s out of the ordinary or out of the norm causes trauma.”

It’s a balancing act preparing students to protect themselves while not hurting them in the process, he said.

And it’s an adjustment to prepare children for such attacks, Werling said, after his career protecting adults as a University of Iowa police officer and as the director of public safety at Mount Mercy University.

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But he takes an empathetic approach to the work — something he’s done since he worked at a nursing home in high school and tried to treat every patient like his own grandparent.

Becoming a parent — he has a 3-year-old son, Everett — has also softened his perspective.

“I think that what I want (parents) to know is ... we’re trying to make it more safe for their kids,” he said of the district’s crisis measures. “We’re really trying to gear this toward making it safer for their kids, not inducing any unneeded trauma, so that the kids can get this training, understand it, and use it as a skill to hopefully keep themselves safe.”

• Comments: (319) 398-8330; molly.duffy@thegazette.com

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