Summit held to discuss school safety in Ottawa County

Becky Vargo • Mar 9, 2018 at 11:00 AM

School shootings such as last week’s at Central Michigan University and the Valentine's Day massacre at a high school in Parkland, Florida, emphasize the fact that these types of incidents can happen anywhere. 

And that’s why local emergency groups conduct tabletop exercises such as the one attended by 150 people last Thursday at the Ottawa County Fillmore Administration Building in West Olive.

The Spring Summit of the Ottawa Area Secure Schools Network (OASSN) is a combined effort between schools, law enforcement and emergency responders within the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District.

Ottawa County Undersheriff Valerie Weiss said the tabletop exercise was already set up prior to the incident in Parkland, Florida. Still, “we examine the incidents to look at any lessons learned from the response with training for response and recovery,” she said.

Weiss said the Sheriff’s Office has been collaborating with local schools for years, conducting tabletop exercises as well as active shooter drills. She said it’s important for the different organizations to develop relationships with each other and for the schools to know the key contacts within their organizations and others.

What’s changed in the past few years is what would happen once the suspect is apprehended or contained to a specific area, then a “warm zone” can be established where firefighters can come in and tend to the victims, she said.

The tabletop sessions are “to make sure we’re all on the same page, the county is so large,” Weiss said.

Grand Haven Area Public Schools Superintendent Andrew Ingall said examples of safety precautions in place include a single entry point during school hours, training for all school staff in CRASE (Civilian Response to Active Shooter Events) that provides the most up-to-date emergency response protocols, and support from multiple local agencies with resources/support and follow-up regarding any individuals where there is a concern.  

“Since the Columbine (Colorado) High School shooting in 1999, we’ve learned that sharing systems, protocol and coordinating efforts saves time, and that saves lives,” Ingall said. “Our team definitely learned new things at this summit regarding overall security and incident management/command. We are actively discussing locally with our leadership team and will be engaging directly with our law enforcement, fire department and emergency responders to continue to improve and plan for safety and security.”

“The OASSN summits help everyone hear the most up-to-date school safety answers from those who are experts in each of their respective subject areas,” said Cal DeKuiper, superintendent for Zeeland Public Schools. “Working together takes regional cooperation to a deeper level, resulting in a higher level of preparedness should the unthinkable ever happen in our region.”

During the summit, multi-disciplinary teams participated in tabletop exercises to discuss the actions their agencies would take in a particular emergency, test the emergency plan, clarify roles and responsibilities, identify additional preparedness needs, and identify next-action steps to improve emergency procedures. 

Michael Rohwer, assistant superintendent of security operations for the Ottawa Area Intermediate School District said OASSN helps facilitate dialogue between and within organizations to be able to better provide a safe environment and to restore safety quickly in the case of an incident.

“Through this network, we are learning about the operational mission and cultures of each organization and increasing communication between parties,” he said. “This type of coordination opens up opportunities to leverage resources as a region, better prevent incidents and provide quick resolution. This summit was the next step in making progress toward our goals.”

Capt. Derek Christensen of the Sheriff’s Office said the OASSN provides a unique opportunity for first responders and educators to collaborate, educate, plan and problem-solve around possible emergency situations.

“Through these summits, we can all develop a common language to promote a culture of safety in our communities and a positive learning environment for students,” he said.

Weiss said the closest they have come to an active shooter incident revolved around a threat received about four years ago at Coopersville High School. The threat turned out to be a false alarm, but was credible enough at first for them to start activating the resources.

Outside the school systems, Weiss said it’s important for residents and business owners to be aware that these things could happen.

“In law enforcement, we’re always thinking of worse-case scenario,” the undersheriff said. “The general public is not thinking of that.”

The Sheriff’s Office has 20 deputies trained to go out into the community to help create plans with private companies. The deputies also conduct monthly CRASE training at the county’s Fillmore Complex.

Weiss said the March training is full, but residents can sign up for one scheduled for April 20. There is no charge, but registration is required. Residents can register online at miOttawa.org.

More information on the training program can be found at www.avoiddenydefend.org.

More than 5,000 Ottawa County residents have been trained so far in CRASE, Weiss said. 

Another way people can help is by submitting anonymous tips at mosotips.com or through the OK2SAY program. Launched in 2014, OK2SAY is a student safety program that acts as an early warning system in Michigan schools to prevent tragedies before they occur. 

OK2SAY received 670 tips statewide in February, according to a press release from Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette. That brings the total number of tips received statewide, since its inception, to 11,899.

Tips can be submitted through the following ways: by calling 8-555-OK2SAY (855-565-2729) or text 652729 to OK2SAY.

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