School districts move to adopt uniform emergency language

West Ada high schoolers, Middleton middle schoolers and Kuna elementary kids will all learn the same words this fall:

  • Evacuation.
  • Reverse evacuation.
  • Hall check.
  • Lockdown.

Four emergency commands that could unify emergency response at schools across the state.

The commands, called the Idaho Standard Command Responses for Schools, are part of a multi-agency effort to make sure Idaho school districts and emergency responders are using the same terminology in emergency situations.

“The ultimate goal is to make sure we’re all speaking the same language,” said Lt. Shawn Harper of the Meridian Police Department, who helped develop the ISCRS standards.

At a meeting last week, the school safety subcommittee of Gov. Brad Little’s “Our Kids, Idaho’s Future” K-12 task force floated the idea of mandating the ISCRS protocols statewide. Response to the idea was mixed, and the committee has yet to solidify any recommendations — but districts across the state are already on board.

Around 20 school districts in Idaho are incorporating the ISCRS protocols into school safety plans over the next few school years, Harper said, including all of the districts in the Treasure Valley.

Boise School District teachers and staff will be trained on the ISCRS protocols this year, said district Safety & Security Supervisor Bill McKitrick.

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The change will mostly require a shift in terminology, McKitrick said. The district will use the word “evacuation” instead of “fire drill,” for example and use “reverse evacuation” for the first time.

Evacuation: Used to get students outside of a school safely if there is a threat inside the building.
Reverse evacuation: Removing students and staff from dangerous situations outside (anything from bad weather to police activity or a wild animal), and getting them to shelter.
Hall check: Detecting and protecting for potential threats, while continuing instruction.
Lockdown: Securing space for the threat of imminent or active violence inside the school.

The ISCRS protocols were developed by a group of Idaho school and emergency response professionals, who realized that they didn’t always take the same approach to emergency situations. Even if districts had similar protocols in place, those emergency procedures didn’t always have consistent names. What might be called a “shelter-in-place” in one district, for example, could be called a “soft-lockdown” in another.

That’s a concern for some school safety officials, who say that inconsistent terminology could confuse law enforcement, teachers and students who have to act fast in an emergency. Brian Armes, manager of the Idaho Office of School Safety & Security, said standardized terminology could be particularly helpful for substitute teachers and transfer students.

School safety trainings are typically at the beginning of a school year, Armes said. So, if a student switches from one district to the next in the middle of the year, they might not be familiar with a new district’s safety terminology and could be confused, and at risk, during an emergency. Substitute teachers could face the same problem when moving between districts.

He thinks the ISCRS protocols can help prevent those kinds of scenarios.

“People are going to be trained more broadly on exactly the same response,” Armes said. “As students and families move from one district to the next, there will be a common understanding.”

Harper would like to see the standards used across the state. Right now, districts have to voluntarily opt-in to adopting the terms.

A state mandate could change that. When that idea was floated at Monday’s task force meeting, former Weiser superintendent Wil Overgaard argued against making it mandatory to use that language.

“I don’t think you will get compliance if it’s like anything we get that we bemoan that we’re just doing that for compliance,” Overgaard said. “That drives school officials and board members and teachers crazy.”

Still, some districts are forging ahead.

McKitrick said the common language could be useful in the event of an emergency in the Treasure Valley. If something were to happen at a Boise school, for example, he would expect first responders not only from the Boise Police Department and Ada County Sheriff, but also from Meridian and Canyon County.

“When there is a call out for support, there is a call out for support,” he said. “We expect all of those folks to arrive and this gives us common terminology for communicating.”

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