New Iowa bill requires schools to conduct 'high-quality' emergency drills

The bill states school districts must work with local law enforcement and emergency management personnel to create a "high-quality emergency operations plan"

By Elizabeth Meyer
The Hawk Eye

DES MOINES, Iowa — Both chambers of the Iowa Legislature have passed bills mandating school districts in the state develop detailed emergency response plans.

The House of Representatives approved Senate File 2364 unanimously last week and it cleared the Senate Monday.

The bill states school districts must work with local law enforcement and their county's emergency management personnel to establish a "high-quality emergency operations plan" for the district and all its school buildings. Districts will need to conduct drills including active shooter and natural disaster scenarios. Local school boards would be charged with ensuring school personnel participate in an annual drill based on guidelines established in the emergency operations plan.

The legislation comes at a time in Iowa and across the country when students, parents and teachers are on edge following the mass shooting last month at a high school in Parkland, Florida. Much of the attention has focused on how to prevent firearms from being used to carry out mass shootings, while other conversations have centered on how to better guard against and prepare for emergencies at school.

Democratic Sen. Joe Bolkcom of Iowa City called the measure an "important step" in addressing school safety concerns.

"It's important that schools do a better job thinking about that," Bolkcom said on the Senate floor.

He noted the March for Our Lives movement that occurred across the nation last weekend, organized by Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School students to protest the prevalence of gun violence in America.

"I hope these young people will continue to press us here at the statehouse and our colleagues in Washington, D.C. to bring some more sense to our gun policies and the whole issue of gun violence in our country," Bolkcom said.

Rep. Jerry Kearns, D-Keokuk, mentioned the bill at a public forum last week in Keokuk, noting amendments Democrats offered to provide funds for securing school windows and more mental health counseling, but they were not accepted by the Republican majority.

"The bill could have been much better," Kearns said. "Obviously we should be doing something on that issue, so it's a start."

When the House of Representatives considered the bill last week, a legislator's effort to turn discussion on the bill toward victims of mass shootings was ruled irrelevant to debate of the legislation.

House Majority Leader Chris Hagenow has said about 85 percent of school districts that responded to an informal survey reported they had an emergency operations plan in place.

"The plans that local districts are to develop would take into consideration recommendations from the Department of Education for what makes a plan high quality," Hagenow said in a press release last week. "These elements come from the federal guidelines and consist primarily of five concepts: Prevention, Protection, Mitigation, Response, and Recovery."

Fort Madison School District superintendent Erin Slater said the district conducts drills at each of its school buildings four times a year. She said they established a threat assessment team this year after learning about the benefits of assembling a designated group at the National School Safety Conference.

Slater said she was not familiar with Senate File 2364 but would be willing to amend their emergency response plans if needed to comply with the legislation.

John Henrikson, superintendent of Mount Pleasant Community Schools, said all classrooms in the district have a binder outlining emergency protocols.

"I have spent time over the last two weeks with our elementary principals and secondary school principals, just taking a look at all of those (plans) again," Henrikson said. "Our next step will be to sit down with local law enforcement to vet those documents again."

Unlike the Burlington School District, there are no resource officers stationed in Mount Pleasant schools, something Henrikson said he would be open to discussing with the community.

"Sadly, when things like Parkland, Florida, happen or Sandy Hook, we all get reminded of the importance of school safety. We need to drill, we need to walk through, so that if something like that happened we've built the capability for teachers on what to do and where to go."

Matt Zurmuehlen of Burlington addressed the Burlington School Board Monday night as a parent of school children and husband to a local elementary school teacher.

Zurmuehlen noted the school safety legislation as a sign "the majority believe these drills are necessary" to help keep people safe at school.

"They know that the more the scenario is rehearsed, the quicker the response time will be in that situation."

Copyright 2018 The Hawk Eye

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