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Learning safely: Departing school building authority chief Mark Manchin says he's pleased with recent gains in safety

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When the lazy summer months come to a close, out come the large, yellow vehicles that are responsible for transporting numerous children into the waiting hands of teachers for several hours per day.

The sight of what most refer to as school buses signifies the end of summer and the beginning of yet another school year. It's a repetitive cycle, with the beginning of one event indicating the end of the other and vice versa.

During the eight years Mark Manchin has spent as executive director of the West Virginia School Building Authority, he said much has been done to improve the safety of the schools the big, yellow school buses are transporting the children to and from.

Laying the groundwork

In 2007, the Legislature passed the School Access Safety Act, aiming to enhance school safety and entries and other access points as well as the overarching security of schools statewide.

Counties seeking funds for school access safety projects during the fiscal year were required to create and submit school access safety plans or annual plan updates that addressed the school access safety needs of each school facility in that county.

During the assessments of the safety plans, several things were examined, Manchin said.

"(The assessments) addressed planning, detriments … and communication issues," he said.

The funds for the counties were then spent in accordance with each county's plan.

In 2008, Manchin said about $32 million was allocated for School Access Safety funds.

Now, there are very few schools that don't have school access safety plans, Manchin said.

Learning from the past

According to Manchin, horrific events in the past few years led to a renewed focus on school safety and the formulation of a statewide safety plan to address any potential situation that would allow for the repetition of the past.

"Horrible events motivate people to move," he said.

Manchin cited the Columbine shooting of 1999 and the Dec. 14, 2012, Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in Newtown, Conn., as events that spurred West Virginians into action. 

Since 2007, when the act was passed, several other school-related shootings have occurred — Virginia Tech in 2007; Deer Creek Middle School in Littleton, Colo. in 2010; Santa Monica College in 2013.

It is from those past experiences, Manchin said, intelligence was born.

"We know many more things than we did in the past," he said. "As horrible as (the events were), we have to learn from them."

Building improvements

Following the passage of the Safety Act, any new school to be built that wanted to take advantage of funds via the Safety Act fund had to be built to certain safety standards.

Some of those safety standards include:

 

  • Shatter-proof glass, 
  • Adequate lockdown mechanisms and exiting devices, 
  • A strategically placed panic button that places a call to 911 and 
  • Administrative offices adjacent to the main entrance school entrance with a direct line of sight to the parking lot.

 

By having that direct line of sight, Manchin said, individuals can be seen as they enter the building and any suspicious activity, such as wearing a long coat in the summer months capable of concealing a gun, can be detected early so appropriate action can be taken.

"An intruder doesn't have the ability to walk straight into the building," he said.

Because of advanced technology, digital mapping of schools in all 55 counties adds to the precautions taken in the state for school safety. First responders are able to digitally access every school location through the Access Management System. First responders also are able to access the assessment of each school while the emergency personnel are en route, giving them a better idea of how to respond once they do arrive. A layout of each school via the digital mapping is also available for first responders.

"The more information we can provide first responders, the better we can protect our children and our staffs," Manchin said. "Time is critical."

Crisis response

Not only has work been done to design new schools with more safeguards, but emphasizing and requiring a crisis response plan has been added as the second part of the safety equation.

According to Manchin, all 55 counties have a crisis response plan, with the findings reported to superintendents, principals and counties.

The information contained in the crisis plans include:

 

  • The school employee in charge during a crisis and a designated substitute; 
  • A communication plan to be used during a crisis;
  • Protocols for responding to immediate physical harm of students, faculty or staff and to traumatic events, including the period after the events have concluded; 
  • Disaster and emergency procedures for responding to earthquakes, fire, floods and other natural disasters such as explosions or other events or conditions in which death or serious injury is likely; 
  • Crisis procedures for safe entrance in and exit from the school by students, parents and employees, including an evacuation and lock-down plan; and 
  • Policies and procedures for enforcing school discipline while maintaining a safe and orderly environment during the crisis.

 

Vulnerability assessments at schools can indicate which schools are vulnerable, allowing those potential vulnerability issues to be adequately addressed.

Safe but inviting

Over the next month, about $45 million in funding will be allocated for new school projects, Manchin said. So far, there have been about $170 million worth of requests.

Interviews with local school officials will be conducted March 17-18, and by April 28, the decision on which schools to fund should be made.

In early June, Manchin will leave his position at the School Building Authority to become superintendent of Harrison County schools. Before he was appointed by his cousin, then-Gov. Joe Manchin, to the SBA post, Mark Manchin served as Webster County's school superintendent and was appointed by the state Board of Education in 2001 to oversee McDowell County's schools. He also spent time in the state Senate. 

While Manchin said the safest place for a child should be school, safety shouldn't completely overshadow a welcoming and inviting atmosphere at each school either.

"Schools should be safe but inviting," he said. "We still want to invite parents and teachers."

Overall, Manchin said he is pleased with the quality of school safety the state has achieved in recent years.

"When you kiss (your child) in the morning, you want to make sure you see them that night."