Risk Reporter for Educational Facilities
Spring 2013 Vol. 1, Issue 1
The months since Sandy Hook have been a time of worry for educational facilities. While it’s important to learn from this terrible tragedy, it’s even more critical not to focus worries exclusively on school shootings — while horrific, they are also very rare. Instead, focus on a comprehensive, all-hazard (e.g., severe weather, bomb threats, etc.) school crisis plan that will help keep your students and staff safer.
The United States Department of Education (DOE) recommends that your plan cover the following:
Assess vulnerable areas in school buildings and grounds and the community.
Start with your district’s crisis plans, if applicable. Customize the plan to reflect the unique needs of your school.
Accommodate staff and student needs. Consider the mental, developmental, physical and sensory challenges of students and staff. Be aware of any potential language barriers.
Ask for help from community resources. “Contact your local police, fire department and emergency management director,” recommended Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International Inc., a nonprofit school safety center. “Ask them to walk through your building to assess safety and security and have them observe and assess your safety drills.”
“Build these relationships now — the local police shouldn’t be meeting the principal during a school-based emergency,” said Gregory Thomas, CEO of the Alan Thomas Security Group, a campus safety consultancy.
Provide a copy of your safety plan — including site maps — to all three groups.
Document thoroughly. “If you’re ever involved in litigation, it will be critical to prove you worked with experts to develop your plan and took reasonable steps to mitigate risk,” Dorn said.
Have your plan reviewed by school legal counsel and the risk management team at your insurance provider.
Review at least annually. “I usually recommend reviewing at the beginning of the school year — plus anytime there’s either a local or national event that might impact best practices or procedures,” Thomas said.
Analyze your culture. “You can add physical tools like metal detectors, but they’re never going to be as effective as people talking to one another,” said Bill Bond, specialist for school safety at the National Association of Secondary School Principals. “Build trust between students and staff and create a feeling that we’re all in this together.”
Bond said studies show that when a student is going to commit a targeted act of violence, he or she has told another person 80 percent of the time. “There’s a code among teens not to ‘get a friend in trouble,’ but we have to show them that by telling someone, they are actually helping both the friend and the larger community.”
Assign roles and responsibilities. Determine staff roles, keep a file of the plan in the school office and provide each staff member with a quick guide. Keep a log of how you distributed the plan and ensured that outdated versions were discarded.
Empower staff. “You never know who will be the first on the scene in the event of a threat,” Dorn said. “Employees must have your explicit permission to act when appropriate and must know how to respond to a variety of situations. Crisis simulations are a good way to practice and prepare.”
Develop procedures for lockdowns, evacuations and reverse evacuations. See Page 5 for more information.
Regularly practice emergency drills and crisis exercises. “It’s better to practice 10 minutes once a month than two hours once a year,” Dorn said. “Regular practices train you to respond correctly, help you see what is and isn’t working and let you correct it.”
Practice can include tabletop exercises — in which staff and emergency responders talk through the plan and brainstorm problems and solutions — and partial and full practices.
Hold monthly safety committee meetings and integrate safety into every staff meeting. “Don’t let safety take a back seat but be careful about inundating staff with information, emails, etc. That can backfire,” Thomas said.
Create a communication plan. Decide how you’ll share information within the school and with emergency responders. Determine which communication devices you’ll use, check that they work with those of emergency responders and ensure that staff has ready access to them at all times. Plan how you’ll communicate with families, the community and the media.
Get needed equipment and supplies. Important items include master keys for emergency responders, communication tools (e.g., walkie-talkies), contact information for families, first-aid supplies, food and water. Some schools have a “crisis bag” for each teacher with a class roster, the quick reference guide, first-aid supplies, a flashlight and extra batteries.
Plan for off-site sheltering. Make advance arrangements to stay in a nearby community center, business, church building or school if circumstances should require. Plan transportation for children and staff who can’t walk.
Develop procedures for accountability and student release. Each classroom teacher should have an
up-to-date roster of their students, and there should also be a complete list of staff. This will enable emergency responders to determine if people are still in the building. Establish a system for how children will be released and to whom.
Assess the situation and respond quickly. “The actions and the communications in the first 30 seconds often make all the difference,” Dorn said. “If a situation suggests that a lockdown should be implemented, don’t hesitate.”
Notify first responders. It’s better to call for help immediately than to think you can handle a situation and find you can’t.
Communicate with the outside world. Identify one person to manage the release of all information to the community and instruct the remainder of your staff to defer to them.
Document everything. The DOE cautions schools to write down everything that occurred during the response and to recognize that all original notes and records are viewed as legal documents.
Build recovery into your plan. Decide in advance which staff will be responsible for which tasks and what outside resources you are likely to need.
Organize a crisis intervention team. This could include resources from the district or school and local experts (e.g., counselors trained in crisis recovery).
Return to “business as usual” as quickly as practical. According to the DOE, creating a sense of normalcy by starting class helps students cope.
Keep students, families and the community informed. Share steps the school has taken to help ensure safety. Keep language and cultural differences in mind when preparing materials.
Make building and grounds repairs. Assess damage and make any needed repairs as quickly as possible.
Assess emotional needs and provide counseling and stress management assistance. Recognize that people grieve in different ways and at different times.
Evaluate your plan and update. What worked well and what didn’t? Use what you learned in this crisis to help you prepare for the next.