Jeff Sharpmack, emergency manager for the Little Rock Air Force Base, speaks to Watson Chapel School District personnel Friday at L.L. Owen Elementary School about what steps schools can take to ensure students’ safety in the event of a bomb threat or active-shooter scenario. (Special to the Commercial/William Harvey)
With several shootings reported at schools around the country recently, the Watson Chapel School District is trying to be proactive and develop a plan to deal with that possibility, as well as with bomb threats and other incidents on campus.
On Friday, school administrators, members of the school board, school security officers, principals and others gathered for an all-day training session under the instruction of Jeff Sharpmack, the emergency manager at Little Rock Air Force Base in Jacksonville and the son of a school district employee.
Sharpmack said he and Paul Jones — director of security for the school district and a Jefferson County Justice of the Peace — walked through school buildings Monday, and he discussed some of his observations, including locks on classroom doors.
“They all lock on the outside and if you have an active shooter, you want to lock the doors but you can’t from the inside,” he said.
He also explained that while there are blinds on windows in some classrooms, others don’t have blinds.
“You want to give a shooter outside the sense that there is nobody in the room and having the capacity to lower blinds can create that,” Sharpmack said.
He also suggested posting a checklist for teachers in each classroom, explaining what they are expected to do in the event of an emergency.
“For example, if there is a tornado, you’re expected to do this, do this, and do this, and your job is done,” he said, adding that principals and school administrators would have their own checklists.
“You want to make it as simple as it can be,” he said. “Don’t make people think too much, just react.”
Sharpmack said it is important to have just one entrance to a building, so that office personnel and principals can control who has access.
He also suggested that after the school holds a fire drill or tornado drill, the teachers and others should get together and talk about the how the drill went, looking for ways to make things smoother.
Sharpmack said that at the Air Force base, security personnel conduct random surveys, looking at who might be on a parking lot, for example, or what vehicles might be driving through an area, and he said the same principle would work for the school district.
On the subject of fire drills and tornado drills, John Hayden, a principal at the high school, mentioned that in a mass shooting several years ago at Jonesboro Westside, part of the plan was to get the students out of the classrooms by calling in a bomb threat.
“There are a lot of possibilities out there,” Sharpmack said. “There are a lot of gray areas but one of the things you want to do is check the surroundings.”
Also on the subject of bomb threats, Sharpmack passed out copies of a document used at the Air Force base that included a number of things the person receiving the call should note, including the voice of the caller, background sounds, the exact wording of the threat, and even asking for the caller’s name and location.
Still on the subject, Sharpmack asked who was responsible for knowing that all the students were accounted for in the event that they are sent out of the classrooms because of a bomb or other threat.
Rose Martin, a principal at Coleman Intermediate School, said each teacher is responsible for taking roll, and that information is relayed to administrators.
When to call police about a threat also was discussed, with Sharpmack recommending that the call should be made from outside the school building, rather than inside since electronic impulses could trigger an explosive device if there was one.
“Our number one priority is to vacate the building,” Superintendent Danny Hazelwood said.
Jones mentioned that when the schools do conduct fire drills or have bomb threats, “we don’t get far enough away.”
Asked by Hazelwood “what is a safe distance?” Sharpmack recommended contacting the fire department.
“A lot of times, the fire department will come out for free and help you figure out a safe distance,” he said. “If you’re unsure, get back until you can’t see the school.”
Ideas such as adding caller ID, providing radios for teachers and improving communications between the offices and classrooms were also discussed during the early part of the training session, as was posting the phone numbers for Jones, other security personnel and school administrators in each classroom.