New golden rule at school: stay safe

It was not a typical break between classes for students at Tartan Senior High School the morning of Oct. 23. During a visit to the school to talk with Assistant Principal Karen Wollak the students in the halls could be observed scurrying about. Standing in the commons of the lower level already posed a risk for getting trampled by hurried students trying to get to their next class.

But when the intercom went on and Principal John Bezek said "this is a code red drill" students became even more hurried, this time to get into a locked room as quick as possible as practice for the procedure they would follow if there were an armed intruder in the school. This was the real reason for the visit with Wollak, to witness a lockdown drill and to interview her about the school's safety procedures, which have been developed based on the district's requirements and nine years of emergency planning.

Now public and non-public schools in Minnesota are required by law to have at least five lockdown drills per year in addition to five fire drills and one tornado drill.

However, the lockdown or "code red" drills are nothing new at Tartan, as the school was one of the first to conduct them more than once a year. Code red drills can be considered for situations where there is an intruder of any kind or an active shooter, Wollak said. Despite the long-time preparations the school has had with the drills, staff and students call the necessity of the procedure "a sad reality."

Although general emergency planning has been a part of Tartan's goals for nine years, the focus specific to school shooters started after 12 students and one teacher were killed at Columbine High School in Littleton Colo. in 1999, Wollak said.

Shootings that have happened in Minnesota, including at Red Lake Senior High School last year and in 2003 at Rocori High School in Cold Spring, remain on the minds of staff and students. Also, with the recent school shootings across the country this fall, the reality is even more on the forefront of safety planning at Tartan (see sidebar).

"Those recent shootings have reminded me that it may just be a stranger out on the streets," Wollak said.

Preparing ... not scaring

For the Oct. 23 drill Tartan administration decided to have the call come in from the parking lot as if the attendant saw an intruder heading toward the school, Wollak said.

In a previous drill a teacher had called it directly from their classroom over the intercom, but an outside call creates another step the school needs to follow.

In the drill the parking attendant called the code red to staff radios and the next step would have been for the staff in the school's main office to relay the information over the intercom.

Wollak said afterward that this did not happen, causing Bezek to call the drill on the intercom and 1,900 students to rush to the closest room with a lock on the door. But monitoring the procedures and reactions of staff when a code red is called is one of the purposes of the drills, allowing them to address them in the future, she said.

They were also able to determine which doors would not stay locked from the inside and how seriously all the students acted during the drill.

In just over a minute, all 1,900 students at Tartan were in locked rooms with teachers where they were to remain quiet and in the dark until there was an "all clear."

Some staff stayed in the commons area to observe, but if it were a real emergency they too would be in the locked rooms.

While waiting for the "all clear" Wollak made a point to enter the school's main office to show how silent it was, even though there were students and teachers "everywhere," even packed into the nurses office and her own, she said. "I am so proud of this staff because they are really willing to take any chances to keep kids safe."

In observing students during the drill some were still laughing and talking on the way to finding a locked room, the group that could be considered not taking the practice "seriously."

"I wish kids would take it more seriously, but then there is the fine line of scaring students and preparing them," Wollak said. "They'll be scared enough if God forbid it ever happened."

Leading the pack

With 10 minutes having passed since the beginning of the drill students and staff were given the "all clear." Shortly after, Wollak invited four students to her office who had not only participated in this drill but had volunteered their time during a weekend last year to help police and school staff with a more elaborate "active shooter drill."

Last November, in collaboration with the Oakdale police and fire departments, the drill was held outside of the regular school week to not "scare" all the students, Wollak said.

Tim Straka, a Tartan senior, said he had heard about the active shooter drill and thought it would be interesting to participate in.

Joining him were three others, Abbi Meuwissen, a sophomore, and seniors Nick Goffard and Krystel Calubayan.

Just after the Oct. 23 lockdown drill, Meuwissen said it first scared her to go through the process and to know her younger sister at Skyview also has to do so because of the state law. "It's just getting closer and closer to us and everyday it could happen here now," Meuwissen said.

At the same time participating in the drills makes the school feel safer, the students said, and in a small way they have become routine.

"I'm kind of used to it, just like fire drills," Calubayan said, adding that it is reassuring that staff are trained and prepared to keep students safe.

School safety is often a discussion topic at faculty meetings and an "emergency round table" is held each summer to focus on any new threats, Wollak said. "We've changed a lot in our safety procedures since we started emergency planning nine years ago."

At that time, the planning focused on working with the police and fire departments on what to do in a weather-related disaster, she said. They planned response times and if they had supplies such as flashlights, radios, medical kits. "All those things were discussed and slowly came into being," Wollak said.

And of course, Tartan follows the district-wide procedures, as do all schools, and then develops specific policies from there, she said. "It all begins with the guidelines the district center gives us."

On average, since emergency planning began to include "code red" lockdown drills, Tartan has been doing more than one per year, in addition to more than one "generalized lockdown" drills, Wollak said.

A generalized lockdown would occur in a non-emergency situation, such as the police drug dogs being called to the school or if a student had a medical problem during lunch and everyone needed to be cleared from that room, she said.

Tartan's practices were actually part of the reason the lockdown drills are now required by law to be five times per year. Mary Cunningham, a graduate of the school and daughter of District 622 School Board member Pam Cunningham, actually testified before a Senate committee about Tartan's practices, Wollak said.

Continued precautions

Efforts at Tartan and throughout the school district for continued school safety will not stop anytime soon and will even grow in reaction to the recent shootings across the country.

After their recent lockdown drill Wollak said staff would take note of anything the school can improve on and send her that information.

"It's a drill about taking care of each other and protecting one another," Wollak said.

Also on Oct. 24 the school district held a guided forum to discuss safety procedures and allow residents, staff or parents to share any concerns (see adjacent story). When asked her outlook for the forum, Wollak said, "I know what is very important to me is for parents to teach their kids that this is a sad reality in our life and kids really have to take these drills seriously."

Katy Zillmer can be reached at or at 651-748-7822.

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