Report: Rhode Island Schools Lack Emergency Readiness

Rep. James Langevin finds that Rhode Island schools in his congressional district aren't coordinating disaster plans with the Department of Homeland Security.

RICHMOND - When they hear "Code Red" over the intercom at Chariho Regional High School, the students and teachers know what it means: someone is in their school with a gun.

They have seconds to lock their classroom doors and get themselves out of sight: hiding under desks or standing tight up against the walls away from windows. During the drill, some students will laugh and make jokes -- until they hear the metal clicking of the doorknob, as someone outside tries to open the door, says sophomore Victoria Grillo, 15.

That sound stops any laughter, she said. While the students know it's just a staff member in the hall making sure the doors are locked, "it's always in the back of your mind that this could be real," Grillo said.

These are modern school days, post-Columbine, post-Sept. 11, where there are drills for more than just fires. Yet, while most schools such as Chariho have written their own emergency plans, many haven't adequately rehearsed their plans, and none had any help from the federal Department of Homeland Security.

That's what Democrat Rep. James R. Langevin found when he conducted his own survey of schools in the 2nd Congressional District. He released the survey results yesterday in the lobby of Chariho High School -- a place that he found has an exemplary plan for emergencies.

Langevin, who is a member of the House Homeland Security Committee, wanted the perspective of local school officials who deal with emergency planning and to find out whether federal agencies have been effective in helping them. Last fall he sent out 234 surveys to all the schools, and got responses from 39 principals and superintendents.

The congressman found that, despite programs at the federal level in homeland security and education that are meant to increase emergency preparedness at schools, few, if any schools either know about them or are using them.

None of the schools that responded to the survey used any help from Homeland Security, although the federal agency offers it and just one contacted the Department of Education. "Federal efforts in school preparedness are uncoordinated and create confusion among respondents," stated Langevin's report.

Nearly all respondents had emergency plans. Yet, most schools reported that their emergency plans were inadequately rehearsed. Only 17 percent of schools and districts are conducting "full field drills" that involve the local first responders, according to Langevin's report. Most said they could use more federal money.

Yet the Department of Education's Safe and Drug Free Schools and Communities Program for emergency preparedness grants had its funding cut by $90 million in fiscal year 2006, Langevin said. Last year, the Bush administration's budget set aside no money for the program.

The federal government could do more in providing an overall disaster plan for schools to use, Langevin said.

Those who had emergency plans did what Chariho did: They wrote their own.

For years, the school has drilled the students in responding to emergencies both inside and outside the school, said Principal Robert Mitchell. If there's a chemical leak outside, they can shelter the students in the school -- filing them into the cafeteria and gymnasium, where the staff seals off the vents with plastic and duct tape. The school has enough food and water supplies stored to last several days, Mitchell said.

But the thought of a gunman in the school is bone-chilling, especially since it has happened elsewhere.

A handful of students who met with Langevin yesterday said they didn't believe anything would happen here. The school is close-knit, says senior Steve Schuh, and everyone knows each other well enough that they'd know about someone with dangerous plans.

The principal hopes so, and hopes the school's emphasis on mutual respect and consideration is having an impact. "Who knows what would happen in a situation like that," says Mitchell. "But we want to make sure everyone is as safe as possible."

Langevin has posted planning materials for school emergencies on his Web site: