Eagle County schools prepare for variety of emergencies | VailDaily.com

Eagle County schools prepare for variety of emergencies

Matt Terrell
Vail, CO Colorado

EAGLE COUNTY, Colorado ” Dozens of airplanes take off and land at the Eagle County Airport every day, and every time, they end up flying over one of our schools.

If one were to ever to crash, while not likely, the school district is prepared, says Mike Gass, director of secondary education.

The school district has a wide array of “emergency response” plans, which detail what exactly has to be done in every imaginable crisis situation to keep kids safe.

There are plans for dealing with terrorist attacks, bomb threats, hostage situations and snipers ” all involving either locking down schools or evacuating them and helping police find vital information, like suspect descriptions, hostage locations and where shots appear to be coming from.

Every school has multiple evacuation and lock down plans, each for a different type of situation.

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In the case of a “suspicious person” wandering through campus, staff are supposed to question them, ask if they’ve signed in at the front office, and if not, they’re supposed to escort them to the front.

If there is a missing student, there are procedures for finding them. If a weapon is spotted on campus, there’s a delicate, subtle procedure for alerting law enforcement without endangering the rest of the school.

If there’s a chemical truck explosion on the Interstate, the students will be staying in the schools, away from windows.

Having several schools located within minutes from Interstate 70 adds a different dimension to the emergency plans. Eagle County might be made up of small resort and rural towns, but I-70 is a major artery in the United States, and there are several exits in Eagle County. With so many people traveling back and fourth, there’s potential for danger, and precautions have to be taken, Gass said.

“When they had that hostage situation in Parachute a year ago, we had to deal with that and lock down the schools,” Gass said. “They couldn’t find the guy and thought he had gotten on the interstate, and it’s just a 30-, 40-minute ride to Parachute.

So, what are the most common emergencies schools deal with?

There are small medical calls on a weekly basis. There are students who fall off swings, get stung by bees or swallow something they’re allergic to.

“Those are the ones you kind of expect to happen to a certain degree,” Gass said. “Part of that is making sure we have accurate medical information, but sometimes we don’t have the whole story on a kid, and that’s when it becomes a little more difficult.”

There are also law enforcement calls, such as fights at schools or a student caught with drugs.

While not exactly common, the schools have to deal with accidental student deaths, like in car accidents or suicides, where other students in the school might need counseling.

“Those are more challenging for us, but we have a great network of principals and counselors that work hard to support the kids, and they’ll do whatever they need to,” Gass said. “We may bring in some clergy people, adults that are trusted and that the kids know, and we may have social services in the loop.”

The school district, on rare occasions, has to enact the major emergency plans. Usually, around two or three times a year, the school district has to “lock down,” which basically means tightening security at schools so no one can come in.

Last year, there was a robbery in Gypsum that forced schools to lock down.

“One of the suspects cut through the high school parking lot and went around Gypsum Elementary,” Gass said.

A few years ago, there was a bank robbery in Edwards, which forced the lockdown of several schools. In retrospect, the students weren’t really in danger, but with dangerous people on the loose, the school district has to play it safe, Gass said.

“When there’s a lack of information, we’re never wrong to lock down the schools,” Gass said.

Law enforcement spends a large amount of time training officers to be ready for these situations, and works closely with the school district to monitor things like lock down drills and fire drills, said Tad Degen, a school resource officer for the Eagle County Sheriff’s Department.

They’re not meant to scare students ” just get them used to thinking quickly and reacting properly so they can be safe, Degen said.

“Think back to the Cold War area and doing those nuclear war drills ” everyone was absolutely terrified, but now drills are common place,” Degen said.

Officers go through extensive training to learn how to deal with possible school violence incidents, like situations seen at Columbine High School.

One of first orders of business before June Creek Elementary opens in Edwards is to decide where students there will go in case it needs to be evacuated, Gass said.

Schools here have increased security over the past couple years, requiring staff to wear identification at all times, and requiring visitors to check into the office.

School staffs are being told to question anyone who’s seen without identification in a school, Gass said.

Staff Writer Matt Terrell can be reached at 970-748-2955 or mterrell@vaildaily.com.

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