Howard County emergency management director looks to strengthen school communication

When wintry weather is in the forecast, decisions to delay or close Howard County schools are not made “on a whim,” said Tom McNeal, the school system’s new director of security, emergency preparedness and response.

Instead, security, safety and risk management teams thoughtfully deliberate the best course of action, he said, and that course is ultimately decided by the superintendent.

“Other than the superintendent, it is really no one single person’s final decision,” McNeal said. “There are too many moving pieces for one person. You have to have a coordinated team, so everyone knows where they stand and what their role is in offering recommendations.”

McNeal’s position is new to the school system and comes as part of the ongoing restructuring effort undertaken by Superintendent Michael Martirano to enhance communication between the school administration and community.

McNeal said his role streamlines communication between chief operating officer Anissa Brown Dennis, who reports final staff recommendations to the superintendent, and security coordinator Kevin Burnett and safety and risk management officer Pierre van Greunen, who are all part of the decision-making process.

Dennis said the security and safety and risk management offices were separated before the restructuring, creating inefficient communication. Under McNeal, she said, “all of the same players” are involved but now work in one office.

“We wanted to make sure that everybody had the same information and was following the same processes and procedures,” Dennis said. “Certainly schools want to focus on curriculum and instruction, but if kids, parents and employees are not feeling safe then none of that matters.”

McNeal was previously the deputy director for Howard County’s Office of Emergency Management, where he worked since 2010. Prior to that, he was a law enforcement instructor with the Maryland Police and Correctional Training Commissions for a year and a corporal with the Topeka Police Department in Kansas for a decade.

Nearly a month into his latest job, McNeal said he is conducting a school system-wide assessment of security, emergency preparedness and response policies and planning before deciding if any changes are needed. This includes reviewing emergency operations plans for the county’s 76 schools, which vary based on the school’s location and layout; the students’ ages, special needs and languages spoken; and community.

“My main interest is the protection of our most vulnerable population, our children,” McNeal said. “Coming from the world of emergency management, I have a lot of experience dealing with winter weather from the county side, knowing that our school system is often the first pebble in the pond to create a ripple effect.”

Delaying or closing schools affects when parents travel to or from work, causing businesses to close and congesting roadways, he said.

Until recently, McNeal said, the school system did not clearly explain why decisions to delay or close schools were made. Martirano said he wants details included in the conversation to help explain to parents why decisions to close were made.

Decisions do not necessarily reflect the amount of snow or the ability of a school bus to drive through it, McNeal said, but rather how long children will be stuck on the bus. Poor timing can impact student safety, such as their health if they need a bathroom break.

“One of the major factors in this region is the traffic volume,” McNeal said. “Just by human nature, folks tend to wait until it’s starting to get bad and then they all jump on the road at the same time, which causes gridlock. If we have to delay closing school, the longer we wait to delay, the more likely it is that our buses will be in those evening rush hour snarls.”

Schools have the tricky task to stay ahead of impending winter weather, Dennis said, but officials work closely with services like the National Weather Service and AccuWeather to know the latest information. The school system also communicates with neighboring school districts.

“Even if we do a delayed opening, the conversation still continues once we get in here and have all the children here,” she said. “Then, we’re talking about, ‘Are we fine to continue the day?’”

McNeal described the process as developing a “reverse timeline” created through communication. Brian Bassett, a spokesman and longtime communications strategist for the school system, said parents are kept up-to-date with mass emails, text messages and social media as well as preemptive warnings about the process as weather evaluations are underway.

“For years, we’ve been able to let the community know schools are closing early, they’re delayed or closed, but the piece that was missing was, ‘Why?’” Bassett said. “The community knew their kid was staying home that day, but they looked outside, saw an inch of snow and then there was a trust issue.”

Now, decisions are explained and school officials can answer more questions if parents call their child’s school. A recent example was a 90-minute early dismissal for snow on Dec. 15.

“Some parents called me and asked, ‘Why? It’s flurrying,’” Bassett said. “I said, ‘Here’s what we saw: It’s the cold temperatures and the traffic issues.’ We expected streets to get icy quickly and they did. Everything we were looking at came to fruition that day.”

Longstanding partnerships and discussions will create a safer school system, McNeal added.

“You don’t want to exchange business cards on the day of the disaster,” he said. “You should know each other already.”

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