THE NEWS that Anthony Ralph died shocked all of us who once worked with him at the International School of Port of Spain (ISPS). Always jovial and easy-going, Ralph, a burly man with a big heart, earned both our respect and affection. Today, I write about Ralph who died on December 22 because everyone should know about his exemplary work in school safety.
For several years, Ralph organised a school intruder drill that was hard to match anywhere in the world. Every year the exercises, scripted by Ralph, became more complex. He did much research on school safety drills.
We had a command centre that co-ordinated actual phone calls to the police and ambulance service. Police arrived with sirens blazing as though it were a real event. My daughter, Ijanaya, headed that centre on our last exercise.
Because of Ralph, we all got invaluable lessons in school safety. Although it is impossible to ever be fully prepared for such a catastrophic event, these exercises provided us with strategies and confidence. Parents, students, teachers, the school nurse, the police and the ambulance service had active roles to play in these drills.
In Ralph’s last simulation, which I participated in about five years ago, the scenario included gunmen in the school and active shooters. In my classroom, I had ten students, a parent and two friendly strangers whom I met seated in my classroom when I entered. They said they were visitors sent to observe the class. The simulation began. I locked the door and gave children their instructions: turn tables upside down, get behind them as shields and never look up.
Everyone had a role to play in this exercise and no one knew other people’s roles. I had an agitated student who panicked and kept running to an adjacent, empty classroom. When she finally ran out of the other classroom, I hurried across to lock the door. I returned to a silent classroom and walked right into the gunman. He was one of the guys who posed as visitors. I felt like I swallowed my heart – even though I knew it was a toy gun.
For the next three hours, I had to work on staying calm and comforting students while many students ran up and down the school screaming, knocking on doors and begging to be let inside classrooms. Once we have locked that classroom door, we cannot open it. Our responsibility is to protect the children in the classroom.
I had to face unimaginable situations like an argument between the two strangers that led to one of them being shot. Then, I had an injured person to take care of. In the end, I faced the choice of whether or not to leave the room with one child when the gunman and police insisted I take the child and leave. No teacher could ever imagine leaving students behind in a classroom with a gunman, but I began to feel I was endangering all the students as the gunman grew more agitated.
After these exercises, we always had a debriefing with the police. The police benefitted from these exercises as much as we did.
Ralph challenged us to face the unmanageable. He wanted us to be prepared for the worst possibilities. We worked out many strategies for child safety in those exercises that took months for Ralph to conceive and organise. Ralph went above and beyond the call of duty to create these complicated, important exercises for us.
Ralph and I went way back 30 years to the day when ISPS first opened its doors on 18 Victoria Avenue. I can see him standing at the top of the steps, greeting us every morning. Ralph always called me Miss J. He couldn’t have been more than 20 when he joined the school. He moved up the ranks to be head of ISPS security, a role he took seriously.
There’s no way to determine what teachers’ reactions to an active school shooting will be. A simulation showed me that you simply do the best you can in a terrifying situation you can’t control. Ralph knew that. He just wanted us to feel prepared.
My daughter, who worked in the command centre during these drills, and has since worked in schools in Sudan and Belgium, says she has never seen any school intruder drills on the level of Ralph’s.
Those of us who worked with Ralph will never forget his legacy in school safety. Ralph was way ahead of his time.