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Morris Area School District has safety plan in place for emergency situations

MORRIS -- In the week after a school shooting in Newtown, Conn., staff in the Morris Area School District have worked to get things back to normal for students, as well as provide a consistent message about school safety for concerned students.

All school districts in the state are required to have plans in place to deal with "potential violent crisis situations" - everything from natural disasters to shootings.

In the days following the Newtown shooting, Minnesota Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius and Education Minnesota President Tom Dooher encouraged schools to take a new look at their safety plans.

"It is important that everyone feels comfortable and safe and ready to handle any potential crisis," Cassellius wrote to school superintendents and principals.

The Morris Area School District has a "very detailed" safety plan that outlines procedures for a variety of emergency situations, including situations where someone would try to harm students or staff, said Superintendent Scott Monson.

The safety plan is reviewed annually each summer to incorporate any new information or procedures that might be necessary. The district leadership team - Monson, principals Craig Peterson and Ken Gagner, and district directors and supervisors - also talk about the safety plan frequently at their regular meetings, Monson said.

Copies of the safety plan are distributed to teachers and staff at the beginning of each school year and reviewed with Peterson and Gagner. Monson said the district also encourages teachers and staff to review the plan themselves throughout the year.

The district also holds a number of drills during the school year to help students prepare for an emergency. So far this school year, the district has performed three fire drills, a lockdown, a "shelter in place" drill, and a relocation drill.

"We do our drills in a proactive manner to help our staff and students understand what's expected and emphasize how important safety is," said Monson.

During a lockdown, staff also explain to students which situations would necessitate the procedure and what staff are trying to accomplish. The shelter in place drill addresses what would happen if students need to stay in the building because of a threat in the community, and the relocation drill addresses what happens if students need to leave the building because of a gas leak or other safety concern.

"Every time we have a safety drill of any sort, I'm really proud of our students and staff and how seriously they take it," said Monson. "It's an inconvenience for all of them, yet they understand the importance of it and they know that if they needed to evacuate the building ... It makes me very proud when I see how they conduct themselves during those drills."

This week, Monson said he hasn't received any calls from parents concerned for their students' safety. District staff have had conversations with some elementary students who were "uncomfortable" and help reassure them they were safe.

The University of Minnesota Extension service has a collection of resources online at Extensions "Violence in Our Schools" website at Topics covered include how to talk to children and teens of every age after the tragedy; helping children through grief, distress and fear; and information for preventing school violence.

Don Davis of Forum Communications contributed to this story.