Students learn to be prepared for crises

The Baltimore Sun

About 20 sophomores donned protective mesh vests, each with a piece of paper attached containing the title of an emergency worker.

They gathered around a 20-by-6-foot table with a miniature city displayed on it and played roles. Their job was to evaluate a stream that reportedly had a contaminant in it.

"Who should be the first person on the scene?" Leah Beaulieu, the program coordinator and teacher, asked the students.

"The incident commander," a student answered.

"What should the incident commander do?" Beaulieu asked.

"Call the EPA," another student responded.

The students were answering the questions during a homeland security and emergency preparedness class being piloted at Joppatowne High School this school year.

The program was started to give students a chance to develop skills they can use. Students also will learn how the United States protects against threats to public health and safety, said Frank Mezzanotte, the magnet programs coordinator for the county's public school system.

"Any program like this is a benefit to the kids," Mezzanotte said. "These classes will make the relevance of learning higher. ... We're giving the students the tools they need to go out into the community and further their opportunities."

The idea for the program originated in 2003 with Mezzanotte. As the former superintendent of technology for the school system, he was looking for innovative opportunities for the students, he said.

"Every time I get up in the morning, there's information on some sort of emergency program," said Mezzanotte, who has worked for the county's school system for 33 years. "This area is going to see a tremendous growth in jobs in homeland security, and we hope this class gives the students the skills to get a job if they want it, or to go to college and study in a related field."

To participate in the program, the students must pass their four core subjects - math, science, social studies and science - and adhere to the school's attendance regulations.

Funding for the program, which has about 60 students, came from the Maryland Emergency Management Agency, which donated about $275,000, and the state Department of Education, which donated about $75,000, he said.

The money has paid for software, teaching materials, curriculum writing and professional development.

One part of the program, which began this year with sophomores, consists of one course called Foundations in Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness. Students learn how emergency agencies work together, do research and develop action plans.

On a recent afternoon, the students discussed procedures for identifying and cleaning up a contaminant in a local stream. They used a miniature city - with buildings, railroad tracks, factories and houses - that was set up on the large table. The city has industrial, residential and main street areas.

The class is a great opportunity and an eye-opener, said Mariam Adegbesan, 15, of Joppatowne, a 10th-grader who plans to become a forensic scientist.

"I'm learning that homeland security is about a lot more than just terrorist attacks," she said. "It's also about daily life, safety and responsibility."

The students are also learning about the human body and how it works, and how to use equipment such as gas masks, Beaulieu said.

After they learn the policies and procedures used in emergency situations, the students use the miniature city to implement what they have learned in class, she said.

They learn procedures for emergency situations such as earthquakes, what to do if a tanker truck overturns on a busy highway and how to evacuate a school if there is a fire, she said.

"What the students are learning in this program will help them when they go into the college or job market," Beaulieu said. "Also, with BRAC [the military base realignment program], there will be an influx of jobs that relate to research, labs and law enforcement. This can help them get jobs."

The students take the second part of the program during their junior year, when they select a specialty area of study from one of three topics: homeland security sciences, law enforcement and criminal justice, and information and communications technology.

Depending on which area the students select, they study such topics as chemical and biological warfare, research methods, the justice system, law processes, first responders to emergency scenes, and evidence collection and analysis, and even learn how to use a geographic information system.

In their senior year, students complete an industry-sponsored project or internship through local emergency agencies, businesses and law enforcement offices.

Magan Pace plans to be a marriage counselor or a family therapist, but she said she sees the need for the program.

"I like doing the tabletop activities because they show me how people react in emergency situations," said Pace, 15, of Edgewood. "It makes it scarier for me to know what will happen in certain emergency situations, but it's interesting to learn."

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