When Ed Clarke was in school, safety drills meant ducking under desks for protection from the nuclear weapons the Soviets were expected to launch.
Now, as the Director of the Department of School Safety and Security for Montgomery County, Clarke has to prepare for scenarios that horrify parents just as much.
Clarke, in conjunction with Montgomery County Fire and Rescue has developed an alert status called Code Blue, Shelter-In-Place. The new alert is designed for a chemical, biological or radiological event in the metro area.
“It’s an additional measure,” Clarke said.
If such an event were to occur, schools would be locked down, like the Code Blue familiar to those who attended Montgomery County schools during the October sniper attacks.
But in addition, the ventilation systems would be turned off and parents would not be allowed to pick their children up from school until it was considered safe.
“That’s their first tendency, and we know that,” Clarke said.
Several reasons were given for not allowing parents to get their children in such a situation. One is simply logistics. “We don’t want parents to park in such a way as to block access of emergency vehicles,” Clarke said.
Another major reason is overall safety. The plan seeks to minimize the number of time exterior doors are opened, and therefore the number of times that those inside are exposed to whatever danger is outside in the atmosphere.
If an event called for the shelter-in-place to be activated, parents would not likely be allowed to move about the county and get to their child’s school.
Some parents find comfort in knowing that their children will be as safe as possible under such circumstances.
“It’s just not a pleasant prospect,” said Sharon Bourke, president of the Churchill PTA.
When the alert is lifted, students would have to be picked up, they could not be simply sent home.
“The last thing we would want to do would be to release kids to go home if there is nobody to go home to,” Clarke said. For this reason, he strongly encouraged parents to update their “yellow cards” that identify people authorized to pick their child up.
The program is designed for only short-term lockdowns of 8 to 12 hours. “We are not talking about long term, multiple day situations,” Clarke said.
Although some parents balk at the idea of not being able to get to their children, Clarke has not seen a tremendous amount of resistance. “I think it has been well received once it’s been explained,” Clarke said.
Some parents agree. “I think, in general for the community, we need to have something in place,” Bourke said.
Other parents think the program is flawed.
“I don’t think this has been thought through,” said Janice Sartucci, cluster coordinator for the Churchill cluster. “My concern is that it was written for the whole county and we’re a large county.”
Sartucci’s main concern was over students in portable classrooms, or trailers.
“We keep treating trailers like they are regular buildings. They are trailers,” she said. She does not think it’s feasible to leave students in a facility with no bathroom or food. “To keep kids locked in, without air conditioning in there, is an issue,” she said.
Trailers have a seam though which chemical or other agents could enter, Sartucci said. “They are not a structure like a building,” she said. She points out that student are being brought inside from playgrounds — an act which will open the sealed building — and wonders why students in trailers would not also be brought into the main building.
But the short trip from the trailer classroom to the main building could be hazardous to children’s health, say some county officials.
“Because we believe the atmosphere outside could be worse,” said Assistant Fire Marshall Brian Geraci. Geraci was one of the officials who developed the program. Portable classrooms would offer some degree of protection from the atmosphere, but that the transit from them to the main building would expose children to whatever it is that prompted the alert.
Children on the playground would be brought into a room with direct access from the outside and isolated from the rest of the school population. That way the students would be afforded some protection without exposing the rest of the student population to any residuals left on those who just came in.
“You’ve sealed the envelope. You don’t want to open it back up,” Geraci said.