Gov. Phil Scott signed a proclamation Friday declaring September to be School Safety Month in Vermont.
Scott and state education and safety officials gathered at the Statehouse to praise the work done behind the scenes to keep schools and children safe and to commit to a safe year ahead.
Rob Evans, the school safety liaison for the Agency of Education, said educators worked over the summer to develop strategies for evaluating and managing threats to schools, especially those sent over the internet like in Essex and South Burlington last school year.
Scott said the many people who help protect kids at school — including teachers, principals, school nurses, and police and fire chiefs — often go unsung for that part of their jobs, because they “prevent the events for which they would be called upon to respond.”
“It isn’t unlike the CIA, in some ways,” Scott said. “Their greatest successes are the ones we never hear about.”
Secretary of Education Rebecca Holcombe, who used to be the principal of the Fairlee School, said keeping kids safe is the first priority of schools.
“The basis of all healthy schools and a healthy society is a sense of safety,” Holcombe said.
When she was a principal, Holcombe said, schools had “$5,000, a lot of duct tape, and string” to work with in designing response plans to emergencies.
Vermont has taken a “huge, huge step forward” since then, Holcombe said. She added that there is now a more systematic approach to safety planning that gives schools a framework to work from and helps address the loss of experience that occurs with turnover in administrators.
A key part of the new, systematic approach is Vermont’s School Safety Center, a joint project between the Department of Public Safety and the Agency of Education, Holcombe said.
Scott’s proclamation urges schools to use the resources provided by the center.
Evans said educators and safety officials thinking through different scenarios and getting to know each other before emergencies is essential.
“In order to prevent these types of incidents, folks have to be talking,” said Evans.
Concerted effort needs to be put in ahead of time, Evans said, “so that when the superintendent is standing next to the police chief, they’ve already worked through some of these decisions.”
Evans added that Vermont’s school safety policies and procedures have served as a model for other states recently, especially the School Safety Center’s website.
Instead of drawing up safety guidelines and leaving it at that, as is common in many states, Evans said Vermont safety officials continuously encourage educators to hone their emergency response knowledge.
One method to do that, Evans said, is “What if Wednesdays,” a brief survey sent out in weekly emails that quizzes teachers and school administrators on how to respond in different school crises.
Scott noted that September is also National Preparedness Month, and that the lighting response time of Vermont emergency responders dispatched to help with flooding in Houston serves as reminder of the value of preparedness more broadly.
“We received a call for assistance (Thursday) morning, early, and within five hours, our team was ready to go and left,” Scott said. “That doesn’t happen without the proper training and making sure you practice and communication, so this is exactly what we’re talking about on a different scale.”