Preparing for the Worst Is Your Best Defense

The saying,“prior preparation prevents problems,” underscores the challenges schools and districts face in a post-Columbine, post-9/11 world. Today’s schools must be prepared to manage a wide range of threatening situations, from traditional emergencies, such as fires, hurricanes and accidents, to ‘targeted’ attacks, such as school shootings and terrorist activities. While ‘targeted’ school attacks are rare, the negative effects of such an event are numerous and can be long lasting.

For the learning process to take place, teachers and students need to feel safe and secure in school. A recent Public Agenda report stated that almost 32 percent of small-school teachers and 46 percent of large-school teachers think a serious violent incident is very or somewhat likely to happen in the next two years at their school. By taking the necessary steps prior to a crisis, property damage, injuries, loss of life and subsequent trauma can be minimized.

The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act requires states to report school safety statistics on a school-by-school basis and report on school safety to the public. Districts must use federal school-safety funding to establish a plan for keeping schools safe and drug free. Plans should address appropriate and effective discipline policies, security procedures, violence prevention activities, student codes of conduct and a crisis management plan.

The first step in being prepared for a crisis is developing a written crisis plan. If your school already has crisis plan, it should be continually reviewed, updated and practiced. There are four parts to a comprehensive crisis plan — prevention/mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery — but the area that schools seem to find the most challenging is the preparedness stage, which focuses on planning for worst-case scenarios. The 2003 National Annual Survey of School-Based Police Officers commissioned by the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) found that more than three-fourths of school resource officers believe that their schools were not adequately prepared to respond to a terrorist attack upon their schools. More than half said that their school crisis plans were not adequate or their plans had not been adequately exercised, and school personnel had not been adequately trained.

Safety experts and the Department of Education recommend all schools in a district have a crisis plan tailored to the specific needs of the school and its students, particularly those with disabilities. However there are certain elements of preparedness every crisis plan should include the following.

Identification and Involvement of Crisis Team: First, define and describe what constitutes various crises for the school based on the school’s vulnerabilities, needs and assets. Following this assessment, create a building-level crisis management team. Assign team roles and responsibilities based on individual’s training and expertise. Work with local emergency responders, community members and parents to provide feedback or revisions to the crisis plan.

Establish Policies and Procedures for Various Types of Crises: Determine which crises call for an evacuation, lockdown or move to an off-site shelter. Plan action steps for each scenario. Develop a system to account for all students, staff and teachers during a crisis. Knowing the day’s attendance and which students are in which classes becomes extremely important in a crisis. Also, address student release procedures, depending on the type of crisis.

Establish Evacuation Routes, On-Site Safe-Areas, Off-Site Shelters: Map out safe routes and safe-areas, and share with all those involved in school crisis management, including teachers, staff and emergency responders. Staging areas for the command post, family reunification, medical treatment and the media should also be designated.

Establish Communication Methods and Protocol: Address how the school will communicate with teachers, staff, parents, families, emergency responders and others during a crisis. Cultivate relationships with constituencies, particularly the media long before a crisis occurs. Plan for several communication methods as phone systems and intercoms may not work in times of crisis. Have an adequate supply of communication gear. Some school plans call for the principal to have a cell phone, walkie-talkie and a PDA with the day’s attendance readily available.

Secure Necessary Supplies and Equipment to Assist Staff in Crisis: Create a phone list of important contacts, which includes local organizations such as the police departments and nearby hospitals as well as national organizations such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Homeland Security. The Department of Education recommends schools create a teacher’s response kit for all classrooms that contains first aid supplies, a crisis management reference guide and an updated student roster. Purchase equipment that is safety-approved for school use and inspect to make sure it is working properly. Necessary equipment could include two-way radios, megaphones, security wands, medical supplies, blankets and flashlights. Maintain a supply of water and nonperishable food.

Gather School Site Plans, Facility Information and Keys: Share these items with emergency responders before a crisis occurs. In the event of a crisis, they will need to have them handy. Facility information should include the location of utility and gasline shut-off valves, and sprinkler system and fire alarm shut-off procedures.

Train, Practice and Drill

Practicing the procedures outlined in the plan and performing drills on a regular basis will facilitate rapid, coordinated and effective response during a crisis. Some schools use tabletop exercises in which emergency responders and school staff met to discuss crisis scenarios and the corresponding procedures outlined in the plan. This method often reveals problems or issues with the plan. Other methods include crisis simulation and response. Also, provide training to teachers to manage students under stress.

“The security aspects of NCLB are a factor for our rural school district,” says William R. Stephens, superintendent of Miami Public Schools in Miami, Okla.“We perform safety drills to coordinate student movement, security and supervision without dependence on phone service.” To communicate during the drills, the teachers and staff use two-way radios and megaphones that have a long range of sound. “There’s a measurable reassurance knowing you can be heard anywhere on the playground,” Stephens adds.

Support from the federal level has increased to provide school leaders with more information about emergency preparedness. Last year, the U.S. Department of Education unveiled a new section to its Website designed to be a one-stop source to help school officials plan for any emergency, including natural disasters, violent incidents and terrorist acts. In addition to the Website, the Department proposed $30 million for the fiscal year 2005 budget to help school districts improve and strengthen emergency response and crisis management plans. Funds can be used for a number of purposes including the purchasing of equipment. Through the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, local education agencies can apply for the Emergency Response and Crisis Management Grant. Schools can work with vendors to find avenues for school safety funding.

Threats to school safety continue to persist from both within, and outside of, our nation’s schools. As a school leader, you are charged with keeping the staff, teachers and students safe. The most important factor in accomplishing this duty is maintaining communication with all school stakeholders long before, during and after an emergency or traumatic event. Open and honest communication will go a long way in preventing loss of life and loss of credibility.

TIM RIDGEWAY is director of Marketing at Califone® International, Inc., a manufacturer of audio technology for the education market, including school emergency response kits, security wands and megaphones.