HARRISON – Deputy Nick Oster, who has been the school liaison officer for Harrison Community Schools since 2010, attended the Dec. 13 Harrison Community Schools Board of Education meeting to present an update on the Emergency Operations Plan for Harrison schools.
The original plan had been approved in March 2015, and Oster explained that the plan was developed to coordinate a cohesive plan for all the school buildings and was accomplished in with assistance of the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management. He said that one part of the program by which the plan was developed is the requirement the plan be approved regularly at a school board meeting. Thus, his talk of Dec. 13.
“It’s thick,” Oster said, holding up the deep binder. “There’s a little bit of everything in there; we’ve sorted through it and continue to sort through it. It’s a living document; it’s not complete because there are some appendixes that are empty and each year we tackle something else – it’s one of things that kind of evolves.”
He said the security group team between Clare and Gladwin counties meets monthly to explore ideas of how to use the plan in the most beneficial way. Oster said the state came up with the requirement for an Emergency Operations Plan because not every school has a police presence or a liaison officer dedicated to the safety and security of the students and staff.
“So, this is like ‘What do we do if we don’t have a liaison? We need to have a manual or something online to reference,” he said. “Well, whenever we have an emergency – and we have had some emergencies, or different levels of emergencies – staff knows to get ahold of me, and I handle it the way that I see fit.”
However, if there is ever a time when Oster is not available, the Emergency Operations Plan can be referenced.
Oster explained that the Schools Security Group was told it needed to update and verify by form or online that the plan was up to date, which the group had been doing since the plan was first developed. He said it was recently discovered that there is no office on the state end where someone would be checking those verifications from schools.
“They came up with a policy that every school needs to submit this form, but nobody on the other end is reading it or holding us accountable,” he said. “But if there ever is, we have what we need.”
Oster said he never shares much information publicly about the plan’s details, because revealing them could jeopardize the ability to protect the security and safety of students.
Rick Foote, Harrison Community Schools superintendent, then explained to the board that it has to approve the plan every two years.
“The liaison officer has to review it with the security team to make sure things are up to date, and not something sitting a shelf that’s never going to get looked at again,” Foote said. He added that the board had approved it two years ago, and that it was on the December agenda because it had to be submitted in January.
Oster explained that recent updates to the plan primarily included new maps which resulted from the renovation/new construction of school buildings. He said an additional map will need to be added when renovations at the Central Office Building are completed.
Oster also said the goal is to get the Emergency Operations Plan into an online form where it can be referenced more easily by building officials, rather than having it float between being locked up either in his office or the office of Emergency Management Director Jerry Becker.
He said each school’s office does have basic forms for how to deal with things such as a bomb threat, etc. Those cheat sheets deal primarily with terminology that would be used, particularly when it comes to lockdowns.
Oster further informed that the State of Michigan had required 10 fire drills over the school year, but that had been changed to five fire drills, two severe weather drills, and three lockdown or intruder/outside threat type drills. When those drills are completed, Oster reports them to Emergency Management and then updates the school website so parents can see the drills that have been completed. He said the drills are not advertised ahead of time for safety reasons.
“Everyone knows how to do fire drills,” Oster said. “But we have different terminology for lockdowns. We’ve got Outside Threat Mode; Lockdown which is there’s a situation that’s occurring in the building; and we’ve got Secure Mode which is when we’re clearing the building for lockdown, we will place each class individually into Secure Mode and that’s what they can be released from over the P.A.; they can’t just be released from Lockdown.”
Oster explained that Secure Mode prevents any students passing, examples of which would be when a student is having a seizure in the hallway or during canine searches for drugs or explosives.
Foote then pointed out that there did not exist a cheat sheet specific to the sort of situation he faced the previous week, and suggested he and Oster get together to develop one addressing the communication which travels between the liaison, the sheriff and the school.
Oster explained that currently there are different levels of communication, one of which is RAVE, through which he could notify every staff member in the county [Clare, Harrison, Farwell] that the school was going into some type of mode. He said there are also emergency radios at the schools which were secured through Homeland Security funds.
“That’s the way with the schools we communicate with each other, Central Dispatch, the bus garage, and that sort of thing,” Oster said. “So they could See Something, Say Something; if they see something is out of place, out of the ordinary … they could use those.”
Oster said he is also supplied with a cell phone for work purposes which he uses regularly, then offered an example of how it is used.
“Thursday night, when everything was going on, on social media from about 8:00 until 10:00 at night, I was getting texted,” he said. “And I was trying to manage that from my bedroom at home. I have group texts set up that reaches 18 staff members: superintendent and his secretary, all the principals and their secretaries, counselors.”
He said sometimes it’s a blast communication to many people, and sometimes it’s specific to a building such as for a truancy check.
“It is difficult when you have something like that where I’m getting calls and texts left and right,” he said. “And to have something push out so that I can communicate with people and put them at ease, [let them know] we are aware of it and we are taking care of it – that sort of thing.]
Oster said that communication with the community and school staff is very important, and it is his recommendation that it needs to happen when situations arise such as when things are becoming a big deal on social media.
Foote said there had been a bit of a break in communications that Thursday evening.
“I was dealing directly with the sheriff,” he said. “You [Oster] were doing the other side from Central Dispatch; you were saying ‘We’re still OK, we should be able to operate school.’ I’m not seeing the social media come up, I’m not a social media fan.”
Foote said he was in communication several times that evening with the sheriff, and it was determined that the threat was not credible and there would be school the next day.
“At that point the decision was made to release a statement, which I did at 8:00 in the morning,” he said. “But, obviously, it got bigger overnight than what I knew about. So, there are some things there communication-wise we didn’t quite [get], but this is the first time that we missed a step in getting that notice out.”
Expressing his appreciation for law enforcement’s assistance, Foote acknowledged that the sheriff was present at the meeting also, and said he wanted to assure that people are getting communicated with in the process.
Oster then spoke of how things can blow up on social media, citing the instance local stir about a bomb threat to Harrison Schools earlier in the year. He said that after some digging it became clear that it referred to a Harrison Schools in a different state, and that the suspect had already been apprehended. He said, in that instance, Central Dispatch had been able to share the correct information on its Facebook page and people had been put at ease.
“That same sort of thing came up Thursday night,” Oster said. “That same suggestion goes out, because Central Dispatch was inundated with calls and they can’t be handling all these calls from one incident and still have accidents happening and people breaking into houses.”
He said that Central Dispatch did the schools a favor to put out a message, even though it didn’t have all the details, but sought to put people at ease by saying the issue was being dealt with.
Board trustee Betsy Ulicki asked if the way to respond via social media to inform people about such an incident could be included in the Emergency Operations Plan.
Foote said he was looking to see that happen, and acknowledged his understanding of the many people in the audience attending due to their concern at not being notified sooner about the threat resolution.
“I made a decision Thursday night based on the information I thought was accurate,” Foote said. “Obviously, other things were happening. And by 6:30 Friday morning things were twisted so far sideways that the statement I released at 8:00 on our Facebook page was not [enough]. That’s why Friday afternoon, after further investigation, I went through the threat guidelines with our team that we put together and utilized. We take this extremely serious and we spent all day Friday with those who were involved and certain of the staff members. We want to make sure that, yes, that was the right decision. Learning lessons.”
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