The need for school safety was underscored by the shooting in Newtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 that resulted in the deaths of 20 elementary school students and six teachers.
The Fort Dodge Community School District emergency response plan lays out the parameters for being prepared in any number of situations.
"We really do believe our schools are extremely safe," Robert Hughes, FDCSD assistant superintendent, said. "We've laid out parameters to monitor and be as proactive as possible and certainly understand the procedures we would have to follow through if, God forbid, any incident ever did occur."
-Messenger photo by Brandon L. Summers
Principal Bruce Hartley checks the doors at Cooper Elementary, guaranteeing his students are safe and secure. The doors of all Fort Dodge Community School District buildings are kept locked except for one pair at the front entrance, which is supervised by building staff.
Since the shooting, the district's safety plans have been reviewed and its security procedures tightened down, Hughes said. Communications were sent out to parents about school protocol, as well.
"We want people to check in, say hello to us, get a visitor's badge," he said. "If someone is in the building, doesn't have an identification on, we address them to see if they need help, what they're looking for and guide them to the office, to make sure we're accountable for who's in our buildings."
Only one set of the school's front doors are kept open; the others remaining locked. Those front doors are supervised by building staff.
"With the staff we have and the awareness we have, I think we're as safe as we can possibly be," Marcy Harms, FDCSD director of student services, said. "I feel perfectly safe sending my kids to school. There's always need for improvement, but I think, all in all, we're a pretty safe district."
The school district collaborates with the Fort Dodge Police Department and Webster County Sheriff's Department on having a single vocabulary for emergencies. Police officers are given tours of the buildings to have a familiarity of the grounds and are made aware of school protocol.
The FDCSD also collaborates with Iowa Central Community College and St. Edmond Catholic School for emergency contingencies, such as providing shelter for students.
"We've really tried to lay the groundwork to build relationships and have common understandings so that when and if we ever run into a situation where we need to support one another we have all of our ducks in a row, and the safety and response system is as effective as possible," Hughes said.
A communitywide committee of 20 holds monthly meetings to discuss safety.
"We started those a month ago," Hughes said. "We've had multiple conversations on a community-based level to make sure we're on the same page."
An issue for the school district is hearsay spread across social media sites. The school district has honed an investigation process for such cases, Hughes said.
"There was a situation where some hearsay was going around that involves both St. Ed's kids along with Fort Dodge students and the communications between the two organizations were very strong," he said. "The investigation included the police department, and that really took care of the situation in a much more efficient manner to guarantee the safety and security of all of our kids."
While the Fort Dodge Community School District remains diligent and vigilant, the community also has a part to play in school safety.
"The reality is we want to be as prepared and as safe as possible, and within that you try to make sure you've made all considerations possible. But the safety really depends on the commitment that we as a larger community make to guarantee our safety," Hughes said. "Because if someone's off-base and unstable it takes all of us to realize it and make sure we maintain our security."
Harms said, thanks to the community's involvement in planning for student safety, this commitment is already possible.
"I'm excited the community is working as a whole," she said. "We're all doing what we need to do together and not separate."