At most schools, students find out about a fire drill by an alarm wailing. To practice lockdowns, there’s an announcement over the PA system.
But what happens at a school for students who are deaf?
A school in St. Paul implemented a color-coded visual alert system and it has components that all schools could learn from, a state official said.
As students across Minnesota recently returned to school or are about to, safety is on the minds of administrators, staff and parents.
More than 90 percent of 11th-graders in the state said they felt safe in school when they took the 2019 Minnesota Student Survey, the most recent data available from the state.
Across the U.S., 44 percent of parents with a child in kindergarten through 12th grade said they feared for their oldest child’s safety at school, according to a poll conducted by Gallup in August. That compares with 34 percent in 2019.
“There’s an enormous amount of pressure on school administrators now to reassure parents, and that reassurance factor has accelerated greatly not only for school officials after Uvalde, but also for law enforcement,” said Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services, an Ohio-based consulting firm.
Some school districts may react by putting in more visible measures — such as cameras or metal detectors — because administrators can show parents, “See, we’ve increased security here at the school,” Trump said.
However, Trump said many of the best school safety measures are invisible or less visible, including having good relationships, so kids know they can come forward if they see a problem; practicing basic lockdowns and evacuations at different times of the school day; and threat assessments.
GROWING POPULATION LED SCHOOL TO NEW LOCATION
Metro Deaf School in St. Paul began working with Minnesota School Safety Center staff when they were in the process of designing the school’s new building.
Susan Outlaw, the school’s executive director, said she thought it was important to consult with the center because “it wasn’t just a fireman’s perspective, not just a police officer’s perspective, but everybody in the emergency system.”
The School Safety Center is a non-regulatory program within the Homeland Security and Emergency Management division of the state’s Department of Public Safety. Its staff work with hundreds of public, private, charter and tribal K-12 schools, educators and law enforcement across the state every year.
Metro Deaf School moved into its building on Energy Park Drive, near Lexington Parkway, in January 2019 after outgrowing its previous location on Brewster Street off Snelling and Como avenues. The building is 63,000 square feet, about 20,000 square feet bigger than the last school. This is the school’s fourth location — they started in 1993 in a small space in downtown St. Paul with 14 students.
The charter school now serves more than 130 students who are deaf, hard of hearing, or deaf and blind. The students come from all over the Twin Cities metro area and western Wisconsin.
The school has served pre-K to 12th-grade students, including opportunities for high schoolers to earn college credits through their classes. This school year, they’ve added programming for infants to pre-K students “because language is critical and plays a critical role in their development,” said Principal Melissa Sweetmilk.
Outlaw said she’s happy to see new students come to the school.
“We have some kids that have never gone off to a sleepover because they don’t have any other friends that are like them, or they have never been invited to a birthday party,” she said. “… It’s nice to see that they come here and they see they’re just like everybody else. … The academic piece is important, but the social-emotional piece is just as important.”
The school employs teachers who are licensed to teach deaf and hard of hearing students, and about 75 of the school’s staff are deaf themselves.
DESIGNING A BUILDING, ALERTS
Before Metro Deaf School moved in, the building had an open workspace with cubicles and high-tech equipment. The school renovation and building of classrooms “changed it dramatically” inside, Outlaw said.
An architect who is deaf worked along with hearing architects to think about how to design every corner and area of the school.
Some of the school’s features include wide hallways that come to a curve instead of a corner, which allows for more sight lines for American Sign Language; letting in more natural light, which is easier on students’ eyes and minimizes vision fatigue; and “Exit” signs illuminated not in red, but green, which is easier for people with visual impairments to see, Outlaw said.
The school’s safety alert system is color-coded to display what’s happening on large monitors positioned in classrooms, hallways and common areas — for instance, if a staff member triggers a tornado drill, the monitors’ screens turn blue, an image of a cyclone is seen and the word “TORNADO” is across the top. The screens turn red in the event of a fire, purple to clear the hallways for a medical emergency, or yellow for a lockdown.
Because the screens are used to show routine messages throughout the school day — such as the lunch menu or congratulating the soccer team on a win — there is a system of strobe lights in the hallways and classrooms to get the attention of students and staff.
“That’s how kids would know ‘You need to look’ (at a TV screen) because the strobe lights don’t go off for any other reason,” Outlaw said.
There are also color-coded lights in restrooms, storage areas and small offices to be used for drills or for emergencies.
The school’s previous location also used a light system, though it only had two colors, for emergency alerts.
Using a visual system could be useful in any school with crowded and loud spaces — such as lunch rooms, gyms or music rooms — because it can be difficult for students and staff to hear an alarm or a PA announcement about an emergency, said Randy Johnson, Minnesota School Safety Center director.
Some schools have incorporated visual signals or flashing lights to indicate that important safety announcements will be given, according to Johnson.
The visual alert system is useful for children too young to read and students who are learning English, Outlaw pointed out.
The Minnesota School Safety Center has also worked with the Minnesota State Academy for the Deaf and the Minnesota State Academy for the Blind, both in Faribault. They have some similar safety measures as Metro Deaf School, according to Johnson.
ANYONE IN SCHOOL CAN PUSH BUTTON FOR LOCKDOWN
Administrators at Metro Deaf School have access on their cellphones to trigger the alert system, as do some other staff members. Teachers in various parts of the building have access to remote controls to set off an alert.
In some hallways, there are red emergency buttons that anyone in the school, including students, can push if a lockdown is needed.
“Our deaf kids are very visual and they see things,” Outlaw said. “… If someone brings $20 that they’re not supposed to have here at school, they know before the teachers know. I feel like kids know, and I think hearing kids do, too.”
Outlaw said they haven’t had to use the buttons, other than for testing, and there have not been instances of students pushing them for a false alarm.
“What’s unique is this is an expansion of what we train throughout the state because some schools are still in a mode where only an administrator can put a school into lockdown,” Johnson said. “We’re encouraging staff members, any staff member to be able to do so. But here at this school, they’ve even expanded enough that students can do it, which is exceptional.”
The alert system cost Metro Deaf School about $58,000 to set up and approximately $3,400 annually.
Under Minnesota law, all schools are required to have at least five lockdown drills, five fire drills and one tornado/severe weather drill per school year.
SCHOOL SAFETY TIPS FOR PARENTS
The Minnesota School Safety Center gives these tips to parents or guardians for the new school year:
- Talk to your children about lockdown, shelter-in-place, fire and severe weather drills to make sure they know how to behave and how to put them into practice if there’s an actual emergency.
- Learn where to access important emergency communication from your children’s schools.
- Encourage students who see suspicious activity to tell an adult or call 911.