Local schools respond to Parkland shooting

School districts talk ways to honor Parkland victims and prepare for emergencies here.

The effects of the horrific school shooting in Parkland, Florida have made ripples all the way to Sammamish and Issaquah, as local schools find ways to honor the victims and make plans for what they would do in such a tragedy.

On the one-month anniversary of the day a 19-year-old man killed 17 people at Parkland’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Christa McAuliffe Elementary School in Sammamish plans to commemorate the occasion with “Wear Blue for Kindness Day.”

While other schools around the nation are using March 14 as the National School Walkout to protest gun control policies in the United States, the McAuliffe PTSA felt that “Kindness Day” would be bringing a positive out of a negative.

“We were looking for an appropriate way to acknowledge the spirit of the day that would be age-appropriate for elementary school children,” said Sarah Hawes Kimsey, vice president of McAuliffe PTSA.

In addition to wearing blue, students will be promoting compassion by performing random acts of kindness, reaching out to make sure no one feels lonely and making new friends.

At press time, Margaret Mead Elementary and Samantha Smith Elementary had joined the movement; it is expected to spread throughout the Lake Washington School District and possibly even to the Issaquah School District.

In addition to honoring the victims, schools are getting involved in the school safety discussion ignited by the massacre to ensure that, if such a situation was ever repeated on the Eastside, staff and students would be prepared for the worst.

“Every tragic situation does give schools pause … After these things occur, what can be learned from them?” said Lake Washington School District Superintendent Traci Pierce. She explained that the district’s Executive Safety Team regularly meets to assess the safety measures currently in place, and to discuss new strategies that can be implemented.

LWSD Risk and Safety Manager Scott Emry explained that in 2015, the Lake Washington School District adopted the ALICE program, which stands for “alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate.”

Because these actions are not a linear process, but rather can be done in any order, Emry said that ALICE gives people the freedom to assess a crisis and pick the action that best fits the current situation. He compared it to reaching into a toolbox and choosing whichever tool you need to complete a project.

“It gives empowerment to staff to make other decisions as needed … to make decisions based on the situation and the environment at the time,” he said.

L. Michelle, communications director for the Issaquah School District, said that the district two years ago made a “significant shift” to its current “Run, Hide, Fight” strategy from the previous plan, which had included just locking down and hiding. “Run, Hide, Fight” is a Department of Homeland Security-endorsed strategy used by schools, universities and workplaces across the nation.

“We do feel like we’re at the forefront of school safety,” Michelle said.

“Run, Hide, Fight” encourages students to first try to escape the campus and run to a designated reunification site. If this is not possible, they should find a place in which to barricade themselves. As a last resort, they should attempt to fight off the attacker — though Michelle said that this part of the strategy is not taught to the elementary school students.

“We want to be careful about being too public with our plans, because in the wrong hands, they could be used against us,” she said. “We don’t want to be mysterious, we want to be transparent, but at the same time balance those concerns.”

What she can say, however, is that, like Lake Washington, the Issaquah School District is always improving and updating its school shooting strategy — not just after a tragedy like Parkland.

“Quite honestly, we’re always reviewing our safety plans,” Michelle said. “It wouldn’t be unusual for us to be re-looking at our plans; we’re constantly asking ourselves how we can improve.”

Issaquah and Lake Washington schools run intruder drills multiple times a year as per state law. Last year, LWSD partnered with local law enforcement to run a full-scale active shooter drill. The simulation, in which staff members and some student volunteers participated, was meant to closely resemble the real-life situation, complete with a person acting out the part of the active shooter and individuals playing the wounded.

Emry said that, as frightening as a situation like this can be, the more realistic a simulation is, the more people can see how they would actually behave when confronted with mass murder.

“It’s very easy to talk about a situation, but then when you’re actually faced with it, your response can be different,” Emry said. “The drill provides an extra level of experience and training.”

Michelle said that Issaquah’s drills have never included a person acting out the part of the shooter. Such a simulation could be “awfully upsetting” for students and staff, and certainly wouldn’t be appropriate for younger students, she said.

“We don’t want to cause any distress … we would have to be very thoughtful about it,” Michelle said.