Crisis readiness: How Tempe schools prepare for the worst

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Security officer John Felton at Marcos de Niza High School on Friday, February 16, 2018 in Tempe, Arizona. – Photo by Billy Hardiman

It happened again.

When the gunfire ceased in Parkland, Florida, a small community north of Fort Lauderdale, 17 people were dead. Families were shattered. Students were robbed of their innocence and sense of security.

It didn’t take long for the debates about gun control and school safety regulations to begin.

Which raises yet another question: how ready are our schools for an attack of this magnitude?

School officials in Tempe say they are.

Led by John Meza, a former Mesa police chief, the Tempe Union High School District’s Safety Department is said to be constantly evaluating its safety measures and procedures

“I believe that school safety is an everyday process,” Meza said. “Safety begins with the planning and preparing— ensuring we react appropriately and take the proper action.”

The process starts at prevention ground zero, comprised of a cadre of rank-and-file staff members charged with protecting each campus against threat.

“Our school security (people) test their equipment and do safety inspections at least once a month. Then I go out to the schools and conduct more of a thorough site inspection. So it’s a continual thing.”

Meza said the district recently updated its emergency management plans, but current procedures will likely be updated again before the start of the next school year.

The district’s emergency procedures aren’t adjusted in a knee-jerk reaction to incidents like Parkland, Meza emphasized.

“I’m prior law enforcement, so I really look at it from the aspect of looking for improvement every day,” Meza said. “Yes, these types of incidents raise our concern, make us look harder at things.”

Ernie Ontiveros, assistant director of transportation and school safety for the Tempe Elementary School District, echoes Meza’s views.

“Tempe Elementary…is constantly evaluating and reevaluating emergency response procedures,” Ontiveros said. “After each drill or event, an afteraction review is conducted by the staff involved. This is an opportunity to evaluate what works and find areas that can be improved.”

Drills are a major tool used by Tempe Elementary and TUHSD to train teachers and students about emergency procedures.

“Students are given instruction on proper lockdown procedures and participate in drillsthroughout the school year,” Ontiveros said. “Students are also taught to report suspicious activity and stranger-danger to an adult immediately.”

Tempe Elementary teachers also play a vital role in helping keep kids safe.

“Teacher training includes a discussion on the importance of being aware of your surroundings and reporting suspicious activity. If a teacher or any other staff see an armed person, or any other threat appears on campus, they are able to initiate the appropriate response to that threat, like a lockdown,” Ontiveros said.

Meza, who was once in charge of a large neighboring community’s police force, views the school district as a small community where everyone’s participation in safety is necessary.

“We need cooperation from our parents, cooperation from our students, cooperation from our staff,” Meza said. “We also have an incredible relationship with Tempe PD and Phoenix PD. The ability for those agencies to take threats seriously and investigate them thoroughly—I think that’s a huge advantage.”

Meza said he also stresses constant training of his security guards and teachers to be on alert as well.

“We conduct regular training with our security guards to expect the unexpected,” Meza said. “And we encourage them to be engaged with students because if you build a rapport (with them) they will tell you things that they hear and have the ability to prevent things from happening.”

While training his own staff is what Meza knows best, one area that needs improvement, he says, is ensuring the same kind of preparedness for teachers.

“I will say that if there is an area that we can continue to improve on it’s to get more training for our teachers,” Meza said. “I think they are so bombarded with the educator training that they don’t get enough of the situational awareness, active shooter-specific training.”

“One of the things we are going to look at is how do we get more training to our teachers along with our security staff.”

For now, teachers continue to participate in drills: monthly evacuation exercises and lockdown drills twice a year. Each classroom is equipped with emergency procedures and instructions for teachers.

The key to student safety begins with a well thought-out plan. While the events in Florida are truly horrifying and saddening, it’s another lesson for all school safety officials, and Tempe schools are taking notes.

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