Students calmly exited buses at Santa Ana Star Center, awaiting their parents to pick them up, on Feb. 14.
(Gary Herron/ Rio Rancho Observer)

John Francis, the new director of transportation for Rio Rancho Public Schools, played a co-starring role on the morning of Feb. 14, when a Cleveland High student took a gun to school, which, fortunately, ended without anyone being injured.

“Cleveland was a great test for our evacuation abilities,” recalled Francis, then the RRPS assistant transportation director.

“I was in security training (that morning) at Rio Rancho High School,” he said. “(RRPS Chief of Operations) Mike Baker called me — Maurice (Ross, then transportation director) was in Colorado — and said, ‘John, we have an emergency at Cleveland.’ I knew what was going on. I said, ‘We need to evacuate.’

“We were right in the middle of middle-school transport, and they were just barely picking up kids and dropping them off at the middle schools,” he said.

“I called the dispatcher and told her, ‘I need you to send all the buses from the northern part of Rio Rancho … to Cleveland High School to evacuate the kids — we have to evacuate 2,500 kids.

“Her immediate thought was, ‘They’re going to be late.’ I said, ‘So be it; let them be late.”

The transportation department sent a phone message to the parents of students whose buses would be late and notified the middle school. Once bus drivers not diverted to CHS dropped of their elementary students, they started filling in for drivers involved in the evacuation.

“After all the buses got to Cleveland and started delivering (students) to the Star Center, made a couple of turnarounds, come back and get more kids … we evacuated over 2,500 kids in two hours — from Cleveland to the Star Center. Of course, there were a number of kids who drove (their own cars).

“The plan was, so we had accountability of every kid there, we had a security person or staff member from Cleveland at every bus — take every kids’ name, take a grade and put the bus number they were on and give it to one central person there at Cleveland, the head of security there, Don Mangin … so we had a full accounting.

“That worked out great,” he said. “So we had contingency plans for that. We have emergency staging areas for every school, so if we have an emergency at a school — bomb threat, active-shooter situation, whatever — we have a set place for every school where those buses will stage until it’s safe to go in, get the kids and take them out. And we have contingency plans for where we evacuate to.”

“The evacuation went well; it went as expected,” he said. “The kids did great. … They were calm, cool, collected. The staff there did excellent.

“In my eight years, we hadn’t evacuated a school like that,” he said, knowing his previous law enforcement experience was an asset. “I went to the command post and met with Mike Baker and with the police department and fire department, (asking), ‘OK, where do you want us? What do you need us to do?'”

Bottom line for Francis: Being a cop was better training for being the transportation director than being a transportation director would have been training to be a cop.

“The stress level is different,” he said. “There was a stress level there, being a police officer. And dealing with (stress) here, I get to deal with a lot of parents — we’re here for them.

“We’re here to take care of their kids and they expect us to,” he said. “The majority of (problem students) are making bad choices: Vaping, smoking, fighting, cutting up seats, marking on seats — it’s all about bad choices.

“They have to learn to make better choices.”

—Gary Herron