Greater Expectations: Safe School Plans Revised

Earlier this year, the U.S. Department of Education released "Practical Information on Crisis Planning: A Guide for Schools and Communities" . This concise, groundbreaking publication is the result of a year-long project involving many respected experts from a variety of disciplines. The guide is a clear departure from the many past attempts to provide educators and emergency response officials with information to help them format a comprehensive safe schools plan. While it may not be apparent to the casual observer, the guide establishes a number of significant and new expectations for school systems and private schools that wish to remain on par with current expectations. School officials who have safety responsibilities are well advised to become familiar with the guide and to compare their current safe schools plans to its contents. The guide addresses significant gaps that have not been addressed in previous publications.

Associate Undersecretary of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools William Modzeleski and his staff worked tirelessly with dozens of experts during a series of working group meetings and special sessions to prepare the guide. The Department of Education contractor conducted exhaustive research and collaborated with a range of school systems and local and state agencies, as well as federal agencies, to flesh out the concepts that were deemed critical to the working groups. The information was then summarized into an easy-to-read and useful guide.

The guide not only highlights the need for a community-based and customized safe schools plan, it further emphasizes the need to fully address the four phases of emergency management within the plan — prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. This is a major shift in focus for school officials who have often been forced to rely upon much less comprehensive concepts for safe schools plans. Having formally reviewed many safe school plans for clients around the country, I have found very few plans that meet the level of development outlined in the guide.

The guide also encompasses the proven emergency management concept of hazard mitigation. This stresses the importance of prevention efforts that have been the mainstay of educators’ efforts to prevent tragedy. While prevention is geared to keeping a negative situation from occurring, hazard mitigation involves measures designed to minimize adverse outcomes when a crisis takes place. For example, school officials can do nothing to prevent a tornado from striking a school. They can, however, use specific measures to reduce the likelihood that students and staff will suffer harm should the event occur.

Another critical component of the guide is its emphasis on incident command. Incident command concepts help key personnel from multiple organizations work together during major crisis events. Incident command helps ensure that available resources are deployed in the most efficient manner possible, and, just as importantly, streamlines communications during chaotic events. Many school officials who have experienced major crisis events have reported extreme frustration concerning problems with timely and accurate communication. The incident command system helps to dramatically improve the quality and speed of information flowing to and from educators and others during crisis situations.

Emergency management experts are well aware that safe school plans must encompass the incident command and unified command concepts used by emergency response agencies if those plans are to be effective during a crisis. These concepts are relatively simple ones, yet many schools affected by crisis have experienced significant problems in responding to major events because incident command issues had not been addressed. Incident command and unified command systems are particularly critical for major disasters, such as earthquakes and acts of terrorism. The federal government has officially adopted these concepts under the restructuring of emergency response plans after the occurrences of September 11, 2001, increasing the need for school officials to incorporate these concepts into their plans.

Highly advanced information on safe schools plan development is also closely linked to the private sector. Jane’s Information Group will soon release the results of what is the most comprehensive publication ever written relating to school safety. Jane’s Safe Schools Planning Guide for All Hazards is a 500-plus page, textbook-sized publication created by an experienced and highly regarded authoring team, supported by an editorial and review team comprised of top experts from a wide range of relevant disciplines. The book supports the all-hazards emergency management model and the reliance upon the four phases of emergency management as established by the Department of Education guide. Robert Petty, Public Safety Sales Director for Jane’s Information Group, perceived a need for a specific and tangible series of books to help those who safeguard American schools, as well as to prepare them to prepare for, respond to, and effectively recover from major crisis situations.

Using some of the same experts drawn upon by the Department of Education, Petty and his team made a decision to expand upon the solid foundation of the project. By drilling deeper into topical areas and adding a wide variety of specific tools and checklists, the guide will help school and emergency response officials in their efforts to improve existing plans or develop new ones. Jane’s also decided to support the primary book in the series with a revised version of their popular "Jane’s School Safety Handbook" and a new guide designed specially to meet the needs of the classroom teacher. Five states have already purchased customized versions of the first edition for every school in their state.

Both of these major research and writing efforts emphasize the need for school officials to work closely with emergency response personnel and other local experts to periodically re-examine their efforts to prevent, mitigate, prepare for, respond to, and recover from crisis situations. And although the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), state emergency management agencies, and others have made significant headway in urging schools to use the all-hazards approach to emergency preparedness, these publications should help those many districts who still rely upon plans that are out of balance.

There are still many schools that rely upon plans developed by consultants who lack a formal background in emergency management. Many do not even use the all-hazards concept as a foundation for the plans they develop. Experts have expressed concern about a growing number of consultants who are trying to push schools to have separate “terrorism plans” that are not in keeping with the all-hazards approach, which is designed to respond to all events, including terrorism. Another popular topic of discussion among a number of the experts serving on teams for both projects was the concern about unqualified consultants who have been working beyond their levels of expertise after the tragic Columbine shooting created a surge in demand for school safety expertise. Hopefully, these two recent publications will help school officials correct the damage that has been done by unqualified consultants in recent years.

School officials have been working arduously to make our schools safer and to prepare for crisis situations. In many communities, school officials have become among the most informed segments of the population concerning prevention and emergency preparedness issues. At the same time, many of the school and public safety officials I interact with are hungry for useful information that is more advanced than what has been available to them. The Department of Education and Jane’s information Group have been responsive to this need and have set forth a challenge to the status quo, while providing valuable tools to help communities rise to the occasion. Our nation’s educators and school children will surely be better for their efforts.


    • Prevention/Mitigation — a formal and written strategy to prevent injuries, deaths and loss of or damage to property as well as measures designed to reduce the negative impact of natural disasters and other harmful events.

    • Preparedness — A comprehensive and written all hazards emergency operations plan as well as emergency preparedness measures designed to address actual crisis situations.

    • Response — Guidance for all school staff on how the plan can be successfully implemented in the event of an emergency, crisis or disaster.

    • Recovery — Formal guidance for school, mental health and other officials to help schools impacted by a crisis recover from crisis situations.

    Major shifts emphasized by these new publications:

    — The emergency management model emphasizing the four phases of emergency management indicates a much more advanced plan than is in place in most communities.

    — Safe school planning as a continual effort.

    — Increased reliance upon multi-disciplinary plan development.

    — All–hazards approach to safe schools planning.

    — Greater emphasis on recovery from school crisis situations.

    — Inclusion of hazard mitigation as part of the safe schools plan.

    — The benefits of a standardized district plan that is then tailored to fit each school with specific site relevant procedures.

    The following a few of the key considerations highlighted in the Practical Information on Crisis Planning: a Guide for Schools and Communities and/or Jane’s Safe Schools Planning Guide for All Hazards.

    Quick test — the “Dirty Dozen” incomplete safe school plan warning signs, was your plan:

    1. Purchased as a generic plan?

    2. Copied from another district’s plan?

    3. Developed by or without the assistance of experts who are experienced in emergency management?

    4. Was your recovery plan developed without the assistance of qualified mental health experts with a background in crisis response and recovery?

    5. Developed to address the four phases of emergency management?

    6. Developed using the all-hazards approach?

    7. Developed without the assistance of all area emergency response agencies and organizations?

    8. Designed to address the needs of special needs persons?

    9. Customized to fit the, risks, needs and resources of your community?

    10. Designed as a living document viewing school safety as a continual process?

    11. Tested by appropriate drills and exercises with external evaluators?

    12. Evaluated by external experts?

    Answer key for: Quick test — the “Dirty Dozen”

    Answers indicative of a well designed safe schools plan:

    1. No

    2. No

    3. Yes

    4. Yes

    5. Yes

    6. Yes

    7. Yes

    8. Yes

    9. Yes

    10. Yes

    11. Yes

    12. Yes

    MICHAEL DORN is one of the nation;s most respected school safety experts. He can be reached at .