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President's Corner                                           Page 47

 

Prevention and Preparation 

BY AMY F. SICHEL

 Amy Sichel

There have been too many tragic news stories lately involving schools, school districts and students. Unfortunately, as superintendents, we have to deal with terrible events that can range from drug overdoses, suicides, weapons offenses and staff members’ transgressions to bomb threats, intruders and shooters. We have learned the first step in dealing with disasters involves preparedness and prevention.

In the Abington, Pa., School District, our counselors, teachers and other staff members are valuable assets in preventing and addressing problems in the early stages. Our staff members continually participate in school safety, anti-bullying, anti-cyber bullying and other pro-active in-service trainings and programs. We regularly review with all teachers and staff our emergency operation plans and school safety programs and orient all new teachers to these programs.

Students participate in anti-drug, anti-bullying, anti-violence and personal safety instruction beginning in elementary school. Students and staff members are the eyes and ears that often identify situations before they escalate.

We recognized many years ago, we should not work in a vacuum. We involve community partners in maintaining safe schools, safe students and a safe community. Our Abington Community Taskforce (http://AbingtonACT.org), created over a weekend 19 years ago in response to an unfortunate incident, continues to support our youth.

Our two full-time school resource officers are an important asset in both preventing and reacting to incidents in our schools. They and the D.A.R.E. (Drug Abuse Resistance Education) officers have established a wonderful rapport with students, which is so important to our mission.

One of our strongest allies has been the Abington Township Police Department. Together we ensure the safety of our students and schools, often in groundbreaking areas. When we detailed our strong program ties with the Abington police in our first successful America’s Promise 100 Best Communities for Young People application, the judges did not believe such a close working arrangement existed between police and schools, but the program director, who had visited us and had seen this partnership in action, assured the judges the partnership — and more importantly, the results — were real. We have been recognized now six times as an America’s Promise Best Community for Young People.

We recently embarked on an intensive, novel program with the Abington police to strengthen our deterrence and prevention programs. Several police officers were assigned to work full time for five weeks on researching and developing an extended program on preparedness for school incidents. Using presentations, group collaboration and exercises, we worked with the police to instill in staff the reality that in the first critical moments of a school-based crisis, they are the first responders. Their decisions in those first few seconds are key to responding to life-threatening situations effectively.

Abington’s crisis preparation program involves:

  • Ensuring buildings and the overall physical environment are as protective as possible for students and staff.
  • Providing ongoing, extensive training in crisis preparation and response.
  • Developing and implementing deterrence programs.
  • Enhancing involvement of police officers in their “beat” schools.
  • Reviewing and upgrading school emergency operations plans and communications.
  • Committing to continuing to work together to keep everyone safe.

Prevention and preparation activities must be ongoing and sustainable, for as the Abington police emphasize, “It is no longer about being prepared if disaster occurs, but rather when it occurs!”

Amy Sichel is AASA president for 2013-14. E-mail: AmySichel@Abington.k12.pa.us

 

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