By Patrick White 2013-11-30 13:13:31
Take steps to ensure your cafeteria and kitchen areas can be a safe haven and not a security risk. While politicians, educational leaders and advocates of varying stripes debate the roots of school-set violence (Drugs? Gangs? Access to guns? Family dynamics? Video games? Mental illness? A combination of some or all these?), those actually working in schools must be ever-mindful of the reality that shocking, tragic and frightening violence can happen anywhere, at any time. This month, our nation remembers those murdered in a Connecticut elementary school on the first anniversary of one the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. It’s likely and wholly appropriate that many School Nutrition readers might feel moved to look around their own communities and wonder, “What if that were to happen here? Could it happen here? Is there something more I should be doing to help keep myself, my colleagues and our students safe?” Insist on Being Included As school nutrition professionals, you are a critical part of the school safety equation. “One of the groups at the top of the list that we recommend get specialized training are foodservice employees,” explains Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services (www.schoolsecurity.org), a private consulting firm that works with school districts to prepare for and manage violence. “Foodservice staff have historically and consistently—almost to the point of negligence—been left out of school emergency planning, at the building level and the district level.” To start, Trump stresses that school nutrition directors need to be involved in emergency planning at the district level. “Just one reason that these directors should be on the district crisis team is that we’ve had instances like one where a large school of 1,800 students was evacuated and sent to two middle schools early in the morning,” he notes. “Then it becomes an issue not only of safety, but what is the plan for feeding those students?” At the school level, Trump says that it’s essential for school nutrition staff to receive training on lockdown procedures. Because each individual school facility and district plan is different, there is no one set of guidance that works for everyone, but the key is to be included in that planning. “They need training to know what to do if, for example, there’s a shooting in the cafeteria during breakfast or a lockdown is called during lunch,” he explains. “There’s an inherent obligation for school officials to provide appropriate training for all employees. This pertains to cafeteria personnel, as well,” agrees Dr. Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center (www.schoolsafety.us), an organization established in 1984 by presidential mandate that conducts school site safety assessments and also provides training and technical assistance for districts facing school safety issues. “Those working in kitchens and cafeterias are very critical— when you look at where disruptions are likely to occur, very often it’s in the dining area.” Nick Montano is a consultant who formerly worked for the New Mexico Public Schools Insurance Authority, where he visited schools to review safety and security procedures. He seconds the notion that school kitchens and cafeterias, as well as the staff running them, should be a higher priority when preparing safety plans. “Most school shootings have happened in the morning hours. A high percentage of students and staff are in the cafeteria eating breakfast at that time, and training cafeteria personnel is usually not a high priority by school administrators as of yet,” he explains. According to Trump, the problem is compounded by the fact that many school administrators are resistant to conducting lockdown drills during breakfast and lunch periods, because they don’t want to disrupt the complex serving schedule and process. His group encourages crisis teams not to neglect training and drills in the span between when the first lunch period starts and the last lunch period ends. “That’s a big chunk of the day, but most schools in the country will never prepare for a lockdown during this time, simply because it’s inconvenient to the adults,” he asserts. “But, ironically, that’s the location and time of day that you have more students congregated in a smaller area than typically would be desired. That’s the time you’re ripe for an incident to occur, so that’s the time when you should be practicing.” Instead, most schools practice lockdowns when students are in classrooms— the most organized and controlled situations, but not necessarily those that will best prepare students and staff for a real-life emergency. Adding to the inefficiency, such drills often take place when those working in the kitchen are at their busiest, and they might not even be included in the drill. “Nobody’s even checking with them; it’s almost as if they’re not there,” laments Trump. Acting and Reacting A school administration’s reluctance to conduct lockdown drills during meal periods is no excuse for neglecting to provide training to cafeteria staff on how to respond to an armed intruder or other threat—nor to fail to review procedures with staff and students in the lunchroom setting. “If [the school administration is] not ready to go for a complete lockdown drill during lunch when students are eating, then we recommend taking students down to the cafeteria during a non-lunch period, sending a couple of groups at a time, and walking the kids [and staff] through what they should do,” Trump explains. School nutrition staff, along with school resource specialists, administrators and crisis team members, should look at cafeteria areas—including kitchen and storage areas and adjacent hallways and stairwells—and say, ‘If we had to lockdown or if we had to move kids, what are some choices we would have as to where we would take them?’” Trump says that he’s seen instances where kitchen storerooms have been used to shelter students and staff. “I even worked with one school where, in their drills, they would pull students into the area of the serving line and pull the solid overhead door down so, if you were in the cafeteria, you couldn’t see anything. Then they moved those kids back through the serving areas into a hallway and out the door to a loading dock.” Every room and area should be considered for emergency use, if it makes sense, says Trump. “If shots are fired, your primary concern is not going to be whether somebody is going to knock over some food. You need to consider every option you have—I’ve seen schools calculate exactly how many students they can fit in a particular storage room,” he states. “Every school is going to be unique; the problem occurs when you’re not having those conversations, because foodservice staff are not engaged in the process.” When it comes to determining the decisions and choices to make in the event of an actual school safety emergency, “That’s going to be very much dependent on the circumstances,” summarizes Ronald Stephens. “Whether you go into a lockdown mode or an evacuation, or what kind of confrontational options you have, if any, really depends on the assailant and their state of mind. It really is a judgment call.” Again, each school’s training and security procedures likely will be different, so there is no one uniform approach. Likewise, security professionals differ in how they instruct those working at schools to respond when confronting a dangerous individual. Ken Trump takes issue with some of the guidance and advice he’s heard being relayed by certain self-proclaimed self-defense “experts.” He’s troubled by “some people who, especially after Newtown, are teaching some very questionable procedures. There are practices that we have very serious concerns about.” The reality, Trump says, is that every individual is going to react in a different way when confronted with that type of emergency. “To tell cafeteria staff in a 40-minute workshop to pick up apples and bananas and throw them at an armed intruder is ridiculous and a very high-risk, high-liability proposition,” he says. Instead, he urges that foodservice staff be represented in trainings and on the school and district crisis teams so that they know how to follow procedures that have been developed for that specific site. Communications Check One thing experts do agree on is the fact that being able to communicate during a school emergency is absolutely essential. Current and uniform communications equipment and technology are critical to help get word to the main office and authorities as quickly as possible, should there be intruders on campus. “Staff members need to be able to communicate what they look like and whether they are carrying weapons,” Stephens says. But just as school nutrition staff are sometimes overlooked in crisis training, the kitchen is prone to being overlooked when it comes to installing updated communications equipment. Ken Trump urges schools to consider the type of communications capabilities they have in the dining area, serving area, kitchens and storeroom. He lists important questions to ask: “Are there functional PA systems? Can they hear announcements? Do they have two-way radios so they can call for help? Do they have a telephone that will dial calls inside and outside of the building?” Personal Personnel Safety It’s not just the headline-grabbing events that should be considered when working to keep school staff safe, says Trump. “Just ensuring the personal safety of staff when they’re coming in and leaving work is important, especially because most cafeteria staff are female and they often arrive early in the morning when it’s dark.” What steps should directors and administrators take? Start by considering the location of employee parking, the lighting and arrival/departure schedules, he explains. Is lighting on a timer? Is it set to accommodate the earliest and latest arrivals? Look at safety improvements you can make inside, as well. For example, Trump suggests a camera or a peep hole or some way staff inside can view anyone on the other side of the kitchen door before allowing entrance. In most communities, school nutrition staff must start getting more vocal about the need for safeguards and training. Although security experts advocate for school district administrators to pay more attention to the unique security issues posed by school kitchens and cafeterias, it’s up to you to be your own best advocate for yourself, your team and the children you serve. Patrick White is a freelance writer based in Middlesex, Vt., and a former assistant editor of this publication. Photography by jiunlimited.com and istockphoto.com. SNAPSHOT • School nutrition staff have historically and consistently—almost to the point of negligence—been left out of school emergency planning. • Review your area, asking, “If we had to lockdown or move kids, where would we would take them?” • Current and uniform communications equipment and technology are critical to help spread the word should there be an intruder on campus. Securing the Site In addition to preparedness drills, another key aspect of keeping students and staff safe is simply preventing unauthorized people from entering the school building. While main entrances to schools are increasingly equipped with security cameras, buzzer systems and other safeguards, access points off of the kitchen need to be given equal consideration, argues consultant Nick Montano. “Delivery personnel rarely check in to the main office, and rear doors are often left unlocked for convenience,” he notes. “Locking down a cafeteria is difficult.” Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center (www.schoolsafety.us), agrees, observing that school kitchens and cafeterias often remain neglected from a security standpoint. “The one area that frequently seems to be a weakness is the school kitchen. I’ve been to some schools where you can’t just come into the kitchen with deliveries; you have to ring a buzzer and ask for someone to open up the loading dock,” he reports. “But I’ve seen other schools where it’s just wide open, which creates an enormous unsupervised liability. It’s important to make sure the entire campus is secure, including the foodservice area.” Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services (www.schoolsecurity.org), says that keeping track of delivery personnel is critical. “We look at who has access to the kitchen. You need to log and keep a record of who’s coming and going—the individuals and the companies—and the time,” he states. “We’ve seen examples where deliveries are being made when staff isn’t even there, and the local milk company is given keys to the school.” Every employee at a school has an obligation to be vigilant and report potential security issues, says Stephens. “If you see someone on the campus who doesn’t belong there, they need to be challenged,” he emphasizes. “Whether you’re a custodian or a teacher or a foodservice employee, you have to direct them to the front office—you can’t just let them continue to come through unauthorized.” When you’re in the midst of cooking and serving and everything else, that’s a pretty full platter, he acknowledges, but if you see something or someone unexpected, don’t turn a blind eye or think you’re overreacting—you must report it! BONUS WEB CONTENT Safety and security, especially in a school cafeteria setting, is an incredibly broad topic. While there wasn’t space to cover all pertinent areas within a single issue, School Nutrition understands how valuable this information is to our readers. We urge you to take time this month to visit our online web pages for additional short articles about dealing with threats posed by fellow employees, questions regarding potential vulnerabilities in your safety training plan, advice for getting help in the aftermath of an act of violence and tips for basic kitchen safety. You’ll find these stories at www.schoolnutrition.org/snmagazinebonuscontent.
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