Archive for Wednesday, May 9, 2001

Veech shares lessons learned the hard way

May 9, 2001

Richard Veech remembers he found a police captain attempting to remove the principal of Columbine High School from the school's ground when he arrived at the building on April 20, 1999.

That discovery came only after Veech, the man responsible for the district's emergency preparedness and response, spent valuable minutes arguing his way through a roadblock.

Veech shared the hard-learned lessons of the Columbine school shootings with about 60 De Soto school administrators, area law enforcement officers, fire department personal and emergency medical responders last Friday at the De Soto School District Administration Building.

The responsibility of school safety is a community effort, Veech said. That common effort depends on organization and training.

"We had an emergency preparedness plan before April 20," he said. "We promptly tore it up. It wasn't comprehensive enough.

"In an emergency situation, you will respond as you've been organized and trained."

Veech is an area administrator in the Jefferson (Colo.) County School System and remains responsible for the district's emergency planning. He also brings another perspective to the discussion of school safety that of a parent.

"My daughter was a senior at Columbine. She saw one of her best friends shot and killed," he said. "I didn't know whether she was alive or dead until 4:30 that afternoon."

The confusion at Columbine was made worse because the district didn't work closely enough with the community in developing its emergency response, Veech said. On a basic level, the school officials didn't speak the same language as the agencies that responded to the emergency, he said.

Most law enforcement departments and emergency-response agencies have adopted a common organization structure used during emergencies, Veech said. This so-called incident command structure establishes an incident commander for each agency.

After Columbine, his school system adopted that command structure in each building, Veech said. The principal serves as incident commander and makes decisions with peers from responding agencies.

"Sometimes you have to give up something responsibility," he said. "If you don't you'll never put together something that works for your community. We need to learn to work together and make decisions that support each other.

"If a law enforcement comes in a tells me we need to evacuate, we're going to evacuate. But I'm in charge of those students when they do."

As incident commander the principal heads a building emergency response team, Veech said. Individual members are trained in pre-assigned tasks. A teacher serves as public information officer, and a secretary documents what actions are taken and who is contacted.

"From experience, I can tell you we live in a litigation crazy society," he said. "If you have an emergency, you better have everything documented."

In addition, the Jefferson County school system has a districtwide response team, which establishes policies, monitors preparation and provides support in emergencies.

The key to making the organizational structure work is training on the community level, Veech said.

"Training should be done in conjunction with law enforcement, emergency response agencies, the religious community and mental health organizations," he said.

The Jefferson County school system avoids a checklist approach to emergency drills and training, Veech said.

"Emergencies aren't black and white they're always gray," he said. "We encourage our people to make decisions based on all the information available and the safety of the kids. If you do those two things, you can't make a bad decision."

Students aren't left out of that training, Veech said. The school system doesn't use alarms or bells. Alerts are broadcast over the public address system informing teachers, staff and students of the nature of the emergency.

If the alert is "lockdown, danger outside" students in and out of the building know they should seek shelter within the school, Veech said. An alert stating "lockdown, danger inside" informs students the danger is within the building and that those on recess should remain outside, he said.

De Soto Superintendent Marilyn Layman said Veech's presentation gave the district a lot to consider. She said she was intrigued by the idea of breaking away from the checklist approach to training.

But the presentation also confirmed the district is taking the right approach to emergency preparation, Layman said. It has adopted the incident command structure and has building and districtwide emergency preparedness teams.

It has already addressed some of the details Veech addressed, Layman said. It has made grounds and building plans available to public safety agencies and requires each building have kits available that contain two-way radios, flashlights, spare batteries, enrollment lists, student photos and other items needed emergencies, she said.

Last Friday was a step in broadening the district's emergency planning to include the public safety agencies in the district's many jurisdictions, she said.

Capt. Vince Werkowitch of the Johnson County Sheriff's Department said the meeting was useful. He was encouraged Veech stressed the need for school districts to adopt incident command structure.

"We use it internally and continue to train for that," he said. "It is a lot easier to work with them when they are using the same language as law enforcement and fire departments. It makes all our jobs easier."

Law enforcement has changed its practices because of Columbine, Werkowitch said. No longer would police officers wait until a SWAT team arrived to seek out the shooters. Instead, a hunting team of early responding deputies and officers would undertake the dangerous task, he said.

That puts a premium on working with the district, familiarity with the school building and training on site, Werkowitch said.

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