Crisis Situation!

What is a safe school?

It has been said that a safe school is a place where teachers can teach and students can learn. There are many components of a “safe school.” They include, but are not limited to, well-trained, school-based police officers, positive relationships between schools and parents, well-designed schools based on CPTED (Crime Prevention through Environmental Design) principles and student attitudes regarding school safety.

One of the critical factors that will be discussed here is that of a Critical Incident Management Plan designed specifically for the school environment. It is important that this be a document that is researched and well-written. However, no matter how good a plan you have on your bookshelf, it is worthless if the school does not practice the fundamentals in the plan. This includes everyone from students to custodial workers to administrators. It is also important to understand what constitutes a crisis. A crisis is a sudden, unpredictable event that adversely affects a school population. It can range from a seemingly mundane occurrence, all the way to a traumatic occurrence that involves serious injury or death, with lasting emotional and psychological effects.

School crises can happen to any school at any given time. In fact, minor crises do occur frequently in most schools. Crises may include, but are not limited to, illness and injury, natural disasters, trespassing by intruders, fire, school bus accidents and acts of violence within the school. It is impossible to describe every possible crisis that could occur and to prescribe a specific plan to deal with it. School officials are charged with the safety and care of our children. They have the moral obligation to ensure that their school is able to respond decisively and appropriately in any crisis situation. Having well-thought-out standard operating procedures will certainly help avoid chaos during any level of crisis or emergency situation.

The object of all school safety-planning efforts is to manage risks. Effective planning, which includes training and exercising, enhances the school’s ability to keep emergencies from becoming crises. Crisis intervention is reactive, occurring after an emergency event, whereas, emergency planning is proactive, enabling schools to reduce the frequency and magnitude of emergencies and to respond faster and more appropriately.

The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and the United States Department of Education have provided an excellent foundation for critical incident management planning.

The emergency management cycle provides a consistent approach to work effectively and efficiently with federal, state, local governments and first responders to mitigate, prevent, prepare, respond and recover from natural, man-made and technological hazards. The emergency management cycle consists of five steps — mitigation, prevention, preparedness, response and recovery.

“Mitigation” refers to sustained and ongoing actions taken to reduce or eliminate long-term risks to people and property from incidents and their effects. The emphasis on sustained actions to reduce long-term risks differentiates mitigation from preparedness and response tasks that are required to survive safely and with the least risk. Effective mitigation actions can decrease the impact, the requirements and the expense of critical events.

refers to actions taken to attempt to avoid an incident from occurring. Prevention also involves applying intelligence and other information to a range of activities that may include such countermeasures as providing a school environment that encourages and enhances student reporting of school safety threat information.

“Preparedness” is the range of deliberate critical tasks and activities necessary to build, sustain and improve the capability to mitigate, prevent, prepare, respond to and recover from school and community incidents. Preparedness allows for planning and forethought regarding possible incidents, as well as having an effective response to almost any incident. Preparedness requires determining what you will do if an incident occurs and essential services are interrupted, developing a plan for contingencies and practicing that plan.

“Response” begins as soon as an incident becomes a threat or is detected. It involves search and rescue, mass care, medical services, access control and returning interrupted services and systems to normal operations. Rather than wait until an incident occurs, you should “plan to respond” by ensuring that all school staff receive training on the safety plan and by conducting drills to increase the probability that everyone knows what to do when a real incident occurs.

“Recovery” procedures are the actions necessary to return the school to its normal operations. The goal of any recovery plan is to restore all normal operations as quickly and completely as possible, but understanding recovery takes time. Recovery activities may be many and varied, depending on the incident, the type and amount of damage, and the number and severity of injuries. Recovery may include issues such as medical care, psychological care, infrastructure, insurance and liability. This piece of the emergency management cycle is often overlooked in the planning process.

It is important that all five steps be utilized in the Critical Incident Management Planning process. By utilizing the emergency management cycle, as well as the National Incident Management System, it is now possible to begin identifying the components of the plan. The plan should, at a minimum, include an annual school safety survey, the designation of team members and the establishment of responsibilities and emergency response procedures.

A school safety survey is an important starting point. It should be conducted on an annual basis without fail. Many have found that this is a daunting task the first time, but that it tends to become less time consuming if it is done in a consistent manner and on an annual basis. Some details to be considered in this survey would include an evaluation of current procedures, a site assessment tool, logistical and tactical considerations, input from responding agencies and community involvement.

The selection of team members can sometimes be a more complicated process than it seems at first glance. In a perfect world, every school would have a well-trained, school-based police officer on campus. For schools that do have a school-based police officer, it would be recommended that this officer be a key member of the team. It might even be a good idea that the officer serve as the team leader, if they have the appropriate amount of experience to do so. Other potential team members might include assistant principals, counselors, school nurses, teachers, custodians, office personnel and students.

Every person in the school building, and on the campus for that matter, bears some responsibility during school crises. This would include students, visitors and any parents who happen to be on campus. However, the designated crisis team would be assigned responsibilities that they are expected to perform during the crisis situation. It will be of great importance that the team members practice these responsibilities on a routine basis prior to an actual crisis event occurring.

We have come a long way in terms of the importance of school safety. Things that appeared to be critical during the middle part of the 20th century are now a distant memory for us in the early part of the 21st century. We have witnessed, and in some cases experienced, horrific events occurring in and around schools. Domestic and international terrorism has reared its ugly head through events such as 9/11, Beslan, Columbine, Virginia Tech… the list goes on. We cannot take school safety for granted! While a well-prepared and well-practiced plan will not necessarily stop these events from occurring, it will give us an opportunity to know better how to respond and, hopefully, save lives in the process. 

Mo Canady is executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO) and a member of the School Planning & Management Advisory Board. He can be reached at 205/739-6063 or [email protected].