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Three schools team up, practice crisis readiness

Principals at Sexton, Meadowlawn and Northeast are pleased with results during a drill, but the plan needs fine-tuning.

By TODD WRIGHT

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 6, 2001


ST. PETERSBURG -- School officials race to their radios to call for help.

Teachers usher students into the nearest classroom, taking a head count as they pass.

As the hallways clear and doors are locked, a teenager bangs on a classroom door, pleading to be let in.

The teacher opens the door. The student has a gun.

This was a test, a practice crisis lockdown at Meadowlawn Middle School.

"One of the rules is you don't open the doors for anyone. That's why we have these test runs, to work out these details," said Don Banks, Meadowlawn's school resource officer.

Such precautions once seemed unnecessary, but in the past decade "school shooting" has become an annual headline. A Pinellas Park High student killed an assistant principal in 1988. Two years ago, at Columbine High School outside Denver, 15 died.

"These are the times our kids are living in," said Patricia Davey, principal at Sexton Elementary School.

Davey's school has teamed with Meadowlawn and Northeast High schools -- its neighbors on a campus flanked by 54th Avenue N and 16th Street -- to form a "block initiative" to enhance student safety. The three schools will work as one in an emergency situation. When there is big trouble on one campus, the other two will be notified immediately and begin lockdown procedures.

"It just makes good sense to have all of us working together in a time of crisis. It's the basic safety in numbers," said Mike Miller, who has been Northeast's principal for nine years.

The schools decided to collaborate three years ago when Northeast applied for a grant to improve health care at each school. The grant fell through, but the principals continued to meet every other week to address academics and health safety.

Then two years ago, a man wearing a trench coat and suspected of carrying a weapon was walking Meadowlawn's campus. The need for an inclusive crisis plan became clear.

"Every school has problems with weapons and things, but when a threat comes close to home, you take notice," Davey said.

The St. Petersburg Police Department and SWAT team, with campus police, were asked to devise a plan that would work for the schools. The first test of Crisis Code Red was May 16.

The principals were pleased with the results, but the plan needs some fine-tuning.

During the first drill, Sexton lost radio contact with the other two schools.

The schools completed lockdown in just over eight minutes. The recommended time is five minutes.

"This was the first time. We anticipate the schools will improve in the problem areas," said Joe Feraca, campus police chief for the school district. "To lock down such a large block in that amount of time is still a great feat."

Monthly practice drills will resume in September.

Miller believes parents and students are aware of the problems schools face when it comes to safety. In one school survey this year, Northeast students ranked safety as their leading concern.

At Sexton, Davey said she has had more suspensions this year from students hitting teachers than in her previous three years as principal.

"Our schools are like mini-cities and violence is a part of those cities. Overall, we are safe, but we all have our situations," Davey said.

Along with the emergency crisis plan, the schools also plan to cooperate with a curriculum that begins in Sexton and progresses through Meadowlawn and into Northeast. The principals said this would provide students and parents with a "seamless transition" from one school to the next.

"With all of us being so close together, we are trying to provide parents with one large community school that their children can attend and be familiar with," Davey said.

In 2003, parents will be able to list a preference for the school their child attends. Northeast recently hosted a forum at which the three neighbor schools informed parents of their plans to coordinate the curriculum.

"We are in the infancy stages for all of these plans, but we are moving forward rapidly," Miller said.

Team building and multicultural programs have been established, allowing interschool relationships to grow. Northeast students already mentor the younger Meadowlawn and Sexton students.

"If this is going to work, the students have to become familiar with each other and know what's going on," Davey said. "It's time for the students to take care of each other and break the cycle."

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