DES MOINES — Iowa Department of Education Director Ryan Wise’s meetings typically deal with subjects like helping students read successfully and building teacher leadership skills.
More recently, however, he’s found himself in discussions about locks, surveillance, threat assessments and arming school personnel.
He has been tabbed by Gov. Kim Reynolds to lead a school safety review she initiated in the wake of the Feb. 14 Parkland, Fla., school shooting that left 17 dead.
While that event caused a sense of urgency, Wise said Iowa schools have been working on safety improvements for some time. So part of the review is identifying what already has been done by schools and “how can we lend more support and assistance to schools moving forward so they truly are safe environments for all kids.”
Since the Sandy Hook school shooting, where 20 children and six staff members were shot and killed in 2010, ”we’ve never stopped,” Wise said. “I think we’re probably further ahead as a state and further ahead in our school buildings than a lot of people have realized.”
The work schools have done “tends to fly under the radar in the absence of high-profile events. It just becomes a natural part of the work of schools,” Wise said.
So he and the directors of the state departments of Homeland Security and Emergency Management, Human Services and Public Safety “are really building off good work that has been happening for several years,” he said.
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He describes their work as “open-ended, ongoing and immediate (because) school safety is not ‘you do one thing and it’s resolved.’ It’s ongoing work.”
The governor gave the directors no hard deadlines or specific actions to take, but they feel a sense of urgency.
The good news is that the majority of Iowa’s 333 school districts have emergency operations plans that address prevention, mitigating damage and loss of life and response and recovery.
“Some have very well-defined, high-quality plans for every building in their district,” Wise said.
Each of the four department directors brings a different professional perspective to the safety review. For Wise, the starting point is his experience as a teacher and education policy professional.
Part of the governor’s review will be to look at existing policy and what additional policy is needed, according to Wise.
The department directors are looking at Senate File 2364, which would require school districts to have emergency plans for every building that are practiced by teachers and school staff as least once a year.
Through Homeland Security, the Education Department and schools may have access to funds for regional and statewide training, Wise said.
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It’s not all about the hard security of locks and cameras, Wise said. On May 1, the U.S. Department of Education Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools program will be in Iowa offering training on behavioral threat assessment — how to manage situations that have the potential for violence or danger in schools.
Although he’s more familiar with the how and what to teach aspects of schools, Wise isn’t discouraged that he’s spending time on protecting students and staff from shooters and other life-threatening situations.
“I have two kids myself,” he explained. “I want them to learn and to be successful and absolutely want them to be safe and feel cared for and have all of the supports they need every day, to be in a safe and welcoming learning environment. So it’s an important part of the discussion. One I welcome rather than shy away from.”
His goal is to have safer schools by helping school boards and administrators find the proper balance between “ensuring schools are safe and secure and that every day when kids walk in they are happy to be there, they feel engaged in their learning and they are prepared to be successful.”
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