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Member Spotlight: In Orono, Preparation and Communication Was Key to School Safety and Security Test

Dr. Karen Orcutt, superintendent of Orono Schools, spoke at a press conference with Governor Mark Dayton and St. Louis Park High School student Eva Goldfarb on the proposed Safe and Secure Schools Act.

Member Spotlight is a monthly feature in the AMSD Connections member newsletter.

On February 20-21, 2018, when back-to-back threats rocked Orono Schools, the district was well-situated to address the one threat determined to be credible. That threat, exactly one week after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, required that the district go into lockdown. More than 3,100 students and staff members were sequestered for just over five hours.

For more than 15 years, Orono has prepared for such an event. That preparation included attending training provided by the Department of Homeland Security and Federal Bureau of Investigation, participating in active shooter drills and establishing and training internal response teams.

Perhaps one of its most significant assets, however, is the school district’s trusting relationship with the Orono Police Department and West Hennepin County Public Safety, as well as with the Long Lake and Maple Plain fire departments. These relationships have been nurtured through mutual planning and training.

On the morning of February 21, the district’s administrative team was debriefing with law enforcement officials about the threat that was dismissed the night before. At 10:57 a.m., Orono Police received notice of a second threat made via Facebook and Twitter that a shooting would occur at noon.

AMSD Connections: Septemper 2018
AMSD Connections: September 2018

“Because we have trained, because we have an excellent relationship with the police, the decision to lock down was executed immediately, and the administrative team knew what to do next,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Karen Orcutt. “While the threat lacked clarity – Was it coming from inside? Was it someone outside the district? – our response was precise. Preparedness brings a certain level of calm even during a tense situation,” she added. “Don’t ever assume, ‘It will never happen here.’”

Orono’s crisis plan calls for a command center to be staged with law enforcement and the superintendent. The director of special services and coordinator of facilities and safety, who head the district’s crisis training, also work out of the command center.

The communications team includes the communications director, technology coordinator, an administrative assistant and district receptionist. “We learned in responding to a bomb threat in 2013 that communication needed to be more frequent and as widespread as possible,” said Gary Kubat, the district’s communications director.

The district used its mass notification system (emails, text messages and phone calls), Facebook, Twitter and websites to update parents and community members every 15 minutes with a few gaps. The updates were numbered (“In hindsight, I would also timestamp them as well,” Kubat noted) and always ended with the reassurance that students and staff were safe.

“From the start, establish the district as THE source of information,” Kubat emphasized. “Remind parents to dismiss rumors or opinions they see on social media. And those text messages from their students? Students are most likely experiencing only pieces of the larger picture.”

Staff members in Orono were receiving all of the same communications as parents and community members, but may have been so focused on student welfare that they didn’t see them. “Be sure principals are checking in with their staff members, so they know how everyone is doing,” Orcutt said.

“A parent’s first instinct might be to come to the school, but remind them not to,” Orcutt continued, “as it could interfere with an emergency response.” With all of its schools on one campus, the city was able to assist in that regard by blocking the roads with snowplows and police cars. Concerned parents gathered at a nearby garden center and food co-op where a police officer was stationed to calm them and communicate with them. “It wasn’t part of our plan, but such a place – an offsite location where parents can gather and support each other – is a good idea,” Orcutt added.

The suspect, a student at Orono High School, was arrested by police about 4:15 p.m. and students were finally dismissed. A press conference was held shortly after that at the Orono Police Department with Police Chief Correy Farniok, other law enforcement officials and Dr. Orcutt. “It was an efficient way to convey information to the media and to ensure every media representative heard the same story,” Orcutt said. “Be honest, show compassion for everyone involved and express your gratitude for the support you received.”

The successful conclusion to this threat didn’t mean that the work was over once the crisis has passed. Orono staff and law enforcement immediately debriefed and sent one more message to parents that evening. It thanked them for their cooperation and support, and provided online resources should they or their student(s) need further reassurance. Communication about the threat continued through the end of the week.

On the day after the threat, the community expressed its gratitude to Orono Schools staff and Orono Police Department, including School Resource Officer Jason Barnes.

Prepare for the return to regular classes with much care. Have crisis teams available in each school. “Use team members to build lists and check in with students who are struggling or may be at risk of struggling,” Orcutt said. “Don’t forget staff members. Even though they are adults, they may still need support in processing what they went through.” Orono was fortunate to have partners in the community and nearby school districts to support these efforts.

“At some point, the spotlight moves on,” Kubat noted. “Keep school safety and security at the forefront, however, by communicating about it frequently. Even if a procedure or training seems routine or mundane, constant reminders that safety is a top priority is encouraging to parents.”

Every situation is unique and, no matter how well prepared you think you may be, there’s always a twist or somewhere to improve,” Orcutt said. “The feedback we received about our response was overwhelmingly positive.

“What we achieved together – the police, staff, parents, communities of Orono Schools and our students – was incredible,” Orcutt said. “We were fortunate.”

This member spotlight was submitted by Gary Kubat, director of communications, Orono Schools.