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LWSD officials partner with local first response teams to keep students safe

Karen Belshaw, principal of John James Audubon Elementary School in Redmond. - Courtesy Photo
Karen Belshaw, principal of John James Audubon Elementary School in Redmond.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

As the country and world mourn the losses of life from last Friday's shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, questions have been raised about why and how this happened.

Debates have been sparked concerning a number of topics including gun control and mental health. Concerns have also been raised about school security and safety. In response, school districts nationwide are looking at their emergency procedures to make sure what they have in place is the best it can be.

In Redmond, it's no different.

Kathryn Reith, director of communications for Lake Washington School District (LWSD), said they will be taking another look at their emergency plans to make sure they are doing all they can to keep students safe.

She said school safety is a regular conversation among principals and teachers.

READY FOR ALMOST ANYTHING

Karen Belshaw said as principal of John James Audubon Elementary School in Redmond, she feels it is her responsibility to keep students, staff and their families safe.

"We really do spend a lot of time thinking about these things," she said.

Throughout LWSD, schools practice emergency drills — ranging from fire and earthquake drills to evacuation and lockdown drills — at least once a month. Belshaw said all this practice allows staff to debrief and make changes and enhancements where needed, adding that her staff have told her that they feel better and more relaxed after all the practice because they feel more prepared to do what they need to in the case of emergency. Belshaw said this is why it is important to practice.

"If we practice it, I really believe they will go on autopilot," she said about staff and students alike.

Belshaw cited the Nisqually earthquake that shook the area in 2001 as an example. She was teaching fourth grade at Elizabeth Blackwell Elementary School in Sammamish at the time. When the earthquake came, she told her students to "drop, cover and hold." She said they initially thought it was a joke, but when they saw Belshaw drop under her desk and pull a parent volunteer down with her, the students followed suit, "because (they) had practiced it."

Belshaw said they have more than 500 students and 50 staff at Audubon and during a recent evacuation drill, they were able to get everyone out of the building and accounted for in four minutes.

"It was amazing, but that's what practice does," she said.

Each room at Audubon also has an emergency backpack filled with first-aid supplies, flashlights, classroom lists, signs to indicate whether all students are accounted for and other emergency supplies teachers might need if they need to evacuate the building of if they are in a lockdown and have to stay in the classroom. The school also has a closet on campus with other supplies such as canopies, water, ponchos and food in case students are stranded at school for a longer period.

Both the backpacks and supplies closets have been paid for by the school's PTSA.

"The goal is to have enough food and water to take care of kids for three days," Reith said.

CONSTANT COMMUNICATION

In addition to constant conversations and practice at schools, LWSD risk manager Scott Emry said they also partner with the local police departments in the district's three cities: Redmond, Kirkland and Sammamish.

He said he thinks the district needs to work in partnership with the local first responders because if they are not in communication about their respective emergency procedures, that could cause more of a hazard during an emergency.

Emry said to help with communication between school districts and emergency response teams, the state has provided funding for Rapid Responder, which gives police and fire departments access to building plans, photos, utilities and other pertinent information they might need during an emergency. He said these plans were developed in partnership with the local police and fire departments so they provide exactly what information the teams would need.

"It takes the guessing game out of the emergency — so to speak," Emry said.

He added that all of this information is secured and not accessible without a password. Emry also said he couldn't provide specific emergency procedures and plans they have in place for security purpose.

Emry is head of the district's safety advisory committee, which includes representatives from all three cities' emergency response teams, and said they have regular conversations and meet every other month to discuss emergency preparedness, safety, security and other related issues. The most recent committee meeting was last Thursday, the day before the Sandy Hook shooting.

"We meet regularly, we have partnerships, we have protocol," Emry said. "We work hard to make sure we have an open relationship."

LWSD schools also have school resource officers (SROs) on campus, who are officers employed by the local police department. Emry said depending on the grade level, each school may have one officer on campus full time or the officer may split their time among a number of schools.

Jim Bove, spokesperson for the Redmond Police Department, said they take a very direct approach in communicating with students and staff.

"We have officers who serve as lunch buddies and we are in constant contact with administration throughout Redmond schools and preschools with crime-prevention information and we often do presentations for staff and students," he said.

Bove added that preparing for a situation similar to Sandy Hook is something they continuously talk about and train for, as well.

"We work collaboratively with the school district throughout the year," he said. "We have active shooter training at schools and other areas that may experience this type of event."

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