Allan Robertson, principal of Wedowee Middle School in Wedowee, Ala., recognized one thing in common among every active threat incident he saw on the news: parents. Frightened parents. Worried parents. Parents who wanted to see their children NOW.
So he came up with a fast, easy way to reduce that stress. And it’s free.
“In the event of any crisis where we need to evacuate, when the lockdown is over, we’ll take them all to the gym. Parents can come straight to the school, come into the gym and find their child,” Robertson says. “But that doesn’t mean someone might come in and take a child. Whoever is picking the child up must go to the homeroom teacher, who has a stock of neon-bright cards that would be hard to duplicate on the spur of the moment. After confirming the person is authorized to pick up the child, the teacher writes both names on the card, and the adult must present the card at the door to leave.”
In addition to being easier for parents, Robertson says it’s also easier for school staff, because they don’t have to organize an evacuation to another location such as a nearby church or the courthouse. And law enforcement also benefits from not needing to secure two separate locations.
“I commend Principal Robertson for his thinking outside the box to help find a solution to protect our children. It’s a neat concept because it’s kind of going against what we’ve been taught before, but it works. It was quite successful when we ran a drill on it,” says Wedowee Police Chief Jay Stone. “It helps us with personnel because we only need to secure an additional location in the school, instead of a second site.”
Another aid to both law enforcement and school staff can be found on the outside of every window: the classroom number. Inside each classroom, under the light switch, the school has placed signs reading “911. Room XXX.”
“If dispatch gets a call from a child who is panicking because the teacher is down, the operator can remind the child to look at the light switch and give the room number. That information goes to arriving officers, who immediately know the correct room to go to by looking at the windows. It makes it a lot easier to identify the site of a problem and to tell which rooms are clear,” Robertson says. And those arriving officers have a clear road into the school as well; dispatch also calls for an automatic closure of the main road to the school, turning it into a one-way avenue for law enforcement only. Parents need to find an alternate route into the school — and they do, he says, pointing out that in a rural area like Wedowee (population approximately 1,000), parents often begin to arrive before law enforcement has operations fully in place.
The simplicity of Wedowee’s plan has drawn attention from the Alabama Attorney General's Office, which has promoted it as a best practice throughout the state. That recognition didn’t come without some extra effort on Robertson’s part, however.
“I applied for the Alabama Safe Schools Award two years in a row, and when we didn’t receive recognition the second year, I called the Attorney General’s Office and told them they really needed to see this for themselves,” Robertson says. The office’s law enforcement coordinator, Chris Carden, made a site visit in April 2017, and said he was impressed with the plan’s simple, inexpensive effectiveness. The result was a letter recommending the Reverse Checkout Plan to the state superintendent of schools in addition to all police chiefs and sheriffs in the state. Since that letter went out, Robertson has heard from several schools in the Birmingham area, where he worked before moving to Wedowee.
“The community has been very appreciative and the parents really like it. We’ve had two trial runs and will continue to practice it, and once they realized how quickly and easily they can get their children back without having to go to another location, they were thrilled,” he says. “Whenever you see one of these incidents on television, you see that parents instinctively come to the school and then they’ve been directed to go somewhere else. But not here.”
Although the plan started with a small school (Wedowee has 215 students in grades 4-6), it can be modified to fit the needs of any size school, and is portable as well: Wedowee has several alternate locations for carrying out the plan in addition to the gym. And all for nothing more than purchasing sheets of colored card stock or pulling them from supplies.
“It costs essentially nothing, it’s easy to organize, it’s easy to practice and the parents appreciate it,” Robertson says. “I hope that any principal or law enforcement administrator who reads this realizes how easy this would be to implement at any school.”