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First response key for school safety
James McCarter, assistant principal at Glynn Middle School in Brunswick, had only 30 seconds to decide what to do as a gunman weaved between cars in the teacher parking lot just feet away from McCarter, several students and another administrator.

Although it was only a training session, McCarter had to imagine it was the real deal.

As he assessed the situation, McCarter remained calm, as well as thankful - he was only in a classroom at the Risley Annex in Brunswick watching an armed man on a video screen. However, he still knew what to do.

"Normally I carry a radio with me, so I would calmly pull the adult with me over, ask her to stay calm as well as work with me to remove the students from the situation as I call the front office and let them know we have a situation, to put the school in lock down," he said. "I would have to maintain my own breathing as well, to make sure I am calm. Shaking in my voice could set another into panic."

McCarter wasn't off the hook yet. School system police chief Rod Ellis continued to ask questions of the assistant principal - everything from what words would he use to let others know of the situation to why he would use specific breathing techniques. McCarter continued to answer and share his thoughts with the rest of the group seated in the classroom during the school system's latest safety training session.

Throughout the day Tuesday, Ellis had a cross section of school representatives, including secretaries, administrators and counselors, going through specific situations and, like McCarter, asking how they would respond in the first 30 seconds.

The school system has stepped up safety training since the massacre of 20 students and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., by a lone gunman Dec. 14. 2012.

"The first 30 seconds are the most critical. What you do in that time is often indicative of the outcome of a situation," Ellis explained. "No security device has anything approaching the power you have to prevent. Lord knows we use the cameras, but is that camera going to step in front of a violator and ask, 'Is there something I can help you with?'"

While the attendees had already received training in the areas of school crisis planning, emergency preparedness and school crisis response and recovery, Ellis says reinforcement is key.

"There's a reason we do drills and train and go over these things often, so we can always get better," he said.

As different staff went through what they would do in a variety of situations, from an angry adult brandishing a knife to a hallucinating woman with her child on the campus, others would chime in with questions and even suggestions. Ellis reminded them that it's not always the crazed gunman brandishing a weapon at the front door.

"We want an 'all hazards' approach to our safety plans. When tragic events like the Sandy Hook shooting happen, many of us put blinders on and we miss all of the other things, from heavy boxes high up that could fall on a child to unlocked and unattended spaces," Ellis said as he pointed to another door out of the classroom.

"If I step in here, you can't hear me. Do you know how easily a bad situation could happen from something that simple?"

* Reporter Sarah Lundgren writes about education and other local topics. Contact her at, on Facebook or at 265-8320, ext. 322.

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