Chatham County school leaders broaden safety scope

Pittsboro, NC – School’s out.

But safety stays on the minds of Chris Blice, the chief operations officer for Chatham County Schools, and Tracy Fowler, the district’s executive director of student services. They gathered in late June with local public-safety officials to guide the school system’s principals and assistant principals through scenarios that were made-up but not at all beyond the realm of problems they might have to solve.

Virginia Cross Elementary School principal Allison Buckner (center) works through a crisis scenario with Virginia Cross administrative intern Brittany Teague during a training session at Chatham County Schools headquarters in Pittsboro on Wednesday, June 28, 2017. Siler Center Elementary School principal Larry Savage is analyzing the scenario, too.

The school leaders showed up to the session at the district’s headquarters with no shortage of experience in making sure their students and staffs are secure during, say, fire drills. But the crisis training Fowler and Blice provided offered an opportunity for the leaders to collaboratively consider a wider range of responsibilities in their roles as principals and assistant principals during trying situations, Silk Hope School principal Angie Brady-Andrew said.

Memorizing scenarios was not the goal, Blice said. The big idea was getting the leaders to work through situations such as whether a school needed to be in a lockout mode whereby classes would continue operating normally with extra measures in place to keep outsiders from accessing the campus.

Or maybe a situation warranted a lockdown requiring classroom instruction to cease in order to move students to safe positions. That would raise the issue of when students should be allowed to use their cellphones to contact parents and guardians, and that’s a notable step, because those phone conversations could add to the noise during a situation that requires calm, Blice explained.

Things are different for educators these days. There was a time when parents trying to contact their children at schools had to make phone calls to front offices. Nowadays, parents often can call directly to classrooms and reach students and teachers through all sorts of technology. School leaders need to know how they’d work through those potentially difficult conversations, Blice said.

“People are our greatest resource for insuring safety — just got to keep them thinking. You’ve got to keep them alert,” Blice said.

There’s even room for school leaders to add wrinkles to fire drills in order to keep students and teachers from merely going through the motions, underscoring the prospect of unknown circumstances, Blice said.

Fowler encouraged the principals and assistant principals to return to their schools and work through crisis scenarios with their students and teachers.