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Mitchell schools review crisis plans

A sign at Gertie Belle Rogers Elementary School in Mitchell prompts visitors to check in. (Chris Huber/Republic)

The ripples of concern from Connecticut are reaching Mitchell.

With 20 Newtown, Conn., families mourning the loss of their children to a shooter on Friday, Mitchell Superintendent of Schools Joe Graves said he understands the public's concern for their children's safety.

"We have a crisis management plan we update periodically that we follow for myriad situations, including this," Graves said.

Mitchell has not done security drills, he said.

"There are so many different scenarios and interpolations that any particular drill really wouldn't do what we need it to do," he said, "so we don't do drills for security."

The school does regular fire and tornado drills.

How people react to a situation depends upon what the situation is, Graves said, "so anything we were to practice on would possibly be counterproductive, because what you practice on may not be what you might actually face."

Graves said the district's administration does review possible emergency scenarios with staff and employees at least once a year. Graves declined to discuss some details of security plans because he said doing so might reduce their effectiveness.

Much of how building employees react to emergency situations boils down to common sense, Graves said. That includes "using the public address system and giving people directions at the time."

The Mitchell School District has restricted access to its school buildings for years. Exterior doors are always locked at all schools and visitors are funneled through one or two main entry doors, depending on the building.

Visitors at the district's three elementary schools are screened by closed circuit video cameras before they can gain access.

"We have a few other procedures we don't make public," he said.

Buildings have been locked down in the past down for security purposes, but none for shooter threats directed at schools.

Longfellow Elementary School Principal Joe Childs said his school was locked down most recently on Nov. 1 at the recommendation of Mitchell Public Safety Chief Lyndon Overweg when police responded to reports of an armed individual at a nearby First Avenue residence. The man later used a gun to commit suicide as police moved in. The school was locked down for about two hours.

Childs said he was able to lock all exterior doors instantly using his school's electronic security system.

Graves said all district schools use the same system, which can be triggered remotely by him, by district technology director Dan Muck, or by each building's principal. All doors can also be locked manually, should the system fail for some reason.

Interior doors, including doors to individual classrooms, cannot be locked down by the electronic system, but each door can be locked manually from the outside, Graves said.

Rooms cannot be locked from the inside.

"As soon as you lock from the interior you create a situation where you keep out people who are trying to help you," Graves said, "though we're still waiting for the last word on whether that's a good idea or not."

Graves said he and his staff regularly seek the best security advice available on such issues. He said it's good to have best practices based on a sound analysis of past shooting incidents.

"We don't rely on our own experience on this," he said.

Mitchell teachers have been directed not to discuss the shooting with their students but to direct students who are troubled by the shootings to guidance counselors for help. There have been no counseling requests to date, he said.

"That would suggest to me that parents are basically saying 'it's something I need to go over with my child,' and I think we need to respect that," Graves said.

Michelle Ommen, principal of John Paul II Elementary School, said her school is locked during the day and it has conducted lockdown drills.

Lockdowns must be done manually, she said.

"I haven't had any parents or children address me on (the Connecticut shootings and security), but we have addressed this on our own with our students and over the intercom, and teachers have discussed it in the classrooms."

Ommen said no individual students have expressed worries about the shootings.

In the past, Ommen said, she has locked down the school when she received Nixle alerts via email from the Mitchell Public Safety Division about criminal activity in the school's vicinity.

Joseph Fox has been school administrator at Mitchell Christian School for about six months. He has had almost no input from parents on the Connecticut tragedy, he said Monday.

"But I have had one parent talk to me today, and I've had a good conversation with my teachers about this."

Fox said his school has a security plan in place but his goal is to tighten that plan in upcoming months.

Fox worked at a Fremont, Mich., school before coming to Mitchell. In Michigan, Fox said, state policy required two fire, two tornado and two lockdown drills a year.

At his school, one lockdown drill was done when children were in class and the other when students were transitioning between classes. In the latter case, kids were moved out of hallways and locked in the closest available classrooms, he said.

"At a seminar I attended on this years ago in Michigan, the presenter said that no perpetrators have ever gone through a locked door," he said.

"We have what I call a lockdown policy, but it's basically a 'lock-yourself-inside-your-room-out-of-sight-of-your-windows policy.' "

Fox said the doors at MCS -- like those at the Mitchell public schools -- lock from the outside. Doors with interior locks pose problems because small children can accidentally lock themselves inside classrooms, Fox said.

Teachers have been directed to leave doors locked at all times even when the door is open. If an alarm is raised, children are moved into classrooms and the door is closed.

Fox said his school will do lockdown drills twice a year, one of those times with Mitchell School Liaison Officer Pat Oelson observing.

"Hopefully he will be able to visit with our little kids later, just to tell them what a good job they did, to create a very police-friendly situation," he said.

Fox said his school's biggest challenge has been screening the frequent visits made by parents for daycare before and after school. Video in the school and parking lots have assisted in that screening, he said.

"We are doing everything we can because I think the safety of our kids is of supreme importance."

Fox has encouraged his teachers to talk through last Friday with their students and to let him know if there are any kids he should speak with individually.

"And since we can pray here, it was encouraged to have a word of prayer for the people in Connecticut," Fox said.