Safe and Sound

During a Thursday morning gathering in early April, Gerald Summers faced an audience with some tough questions. That same afternoon, he received word that he had received a national award for dealing with those tough questions — and finding solutions — in regard to school safety.

His morning meeting was requested by a handful of students in the New Tech Institute, concerning building safety in the facility on Lynch Road in Evansville.

“They wore me out,” Summers says. The students brought up questions about building access and tornado safety. He agrees with the students that these areas need more attention.

Mary Anne Mathews, a teacher, facilitates Project Citizen, which led to the students’ questions. Project Citizen “tries to get the kids involved early in citizenship,” she says. Her freshmen and sophomores are determined to do more than complain about problems. They want to find answers.

So does Summers. Now in his seventh year as director of safety and security for the Evansville Vanderburgh School Corporation, he has the responsibility to take on such issues. His work, which has benefited public, religious, and private schools in southwestern Indiana, is the reason Campus Security magazine is recognizing him this year.

“It’s a huge honor for me to be recognized throughout the United States,” Summers says. Some of his achievements include:

Emergency manuals, flashlights, and first-aid kits are in every classroom in the county, in public, private, and religious schools. That’s one of the results of a Readiness Emergency Management for Schools grant he sought and received in 2009.

More than 600 teachers have received safety training — possible in part because that same grant paid for substitute teachers, freeing up valuable time for training of classroom teachers.

Every public, private, and religious school has a walkie-talkie operating on the same frequency, allowing quick and simple communication among law enforcement, public safety, emergency response, and school safety personnel.

Under the previous FEMA protocol, code words were used, such as “green,” “yellow,” and “red.” Now, not only can school and public safety personnel talk with each other, they can use the same words. “A lockdown is a lockdown. A tornado is a tornado,” Summers says.

After seven years on the job, Summers believes schools are safer than they used to be. “The bottom line is practice, practice, practice,” he says. “Do the drill, take it seriously. Many times when the real thing happens, the response falls apart during the first minute or two. We don’t have a minute or two.”

According to Summers, identifying and overcoming challenges is crucial to the process. He says finding the time to get to all of the staff with appropriate training was difficult, and getting grant money to pay for substitute teachers made a huge difference. He notes that 428 staff members from EVSC and 205 community representatives have received training.

Of course, proper training doesn’t assuage all concerns. When asked where schools are most vulnerable, Summers says, “The kids at the New Tech Institute asked me the same question, ‘What is your worst fear?’ I told them, ‘A gunman in the building.’”

The second greatest fear is “terrorism — not from al Qaeda, but from our own homegrown citizens.”

And there’s yet another one. “Meth. Whatever happens in our community can happen in our schools,” Summers says. “Unrest in the city, a labor strike, anything that disrupts a part of the community is going to have an impact on the schools.”

The challenges are many, and they are things no one wants to think about but somebody has to — such as a plane crashing into a school building. “Many schools are under the regular flight patterns,” Summers says, and reiterates that the schools practice what students should do and where they should go in certain situations.

The training is what Summers considers the most satisfying aspect of his position. “Knowing that staff and students have the knowledge to do what they are supposed to do,” he says. “That will be lasting.” In 2009, only 15 people in the EVSC had certification from the National Incident Management System; today, there are 103.

Summers says the biggest remaining challenge is to develop a partnership between schools and parents. “It’s the parents that I struggle with,” he adds. “We are truly in this together and we’ve got to work together.”

Liz Adams, an Evansville parent who has had students at Bosse High School since 2003, echoes that need for parent involvement. “I’ve never had any concerns about school safety,” Adams says. “But I’m a parent who has been around the school a lot. I know the teachers. The teachers know me.”

Working together, Summers says, “will create a win-win situation where parents, students, and staff are equally prepared to respond to those crises we cannot prevent, such as a train derailment, earthquake, tornado, or chemical spill.”

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