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Back-to-School Feature: How to prepare for a crisis

The letter bomb dug a hole as wide as a basketball into the principal’s desk, shattering windows and blowing shrapnel around the room.

Then the principal and his wounded secretary were en route to the hospital. And it was Linda Chase’s job to figure out what to do next.

Happily, all of this was fake, an orchestrated drill in abandoned military housing, to help [Massachusetts] police, fire, and school officials–106 of them in all–learn how to react to the reality of school violence.

Chase, a Winchester School District administrator, fared well. “I didn’t blow up,” she said.

But 18 people suffered fake deaths in one team alone, after members touched something they shouldn’t have, ignored something they shouldn’t have, and talked on a walkie-talkie without realizing it might ignite a hidden bomb–fake, of course.

“It’s almost crazy,” said Fire Lieutenant Vincent Zapulla, a member of the committee that helped set up the scenarios … “But these are the things these people need to think about down the road.”

–The Boston Globe, April 26, 2001, page B2

The drill described above reflects a scene that is being played out in hundreds of communities across the country. In the wake of a string of school shootings and other instances of violence, school officials are preparing for the unthinkable by assembling crisis response plans and putting these plans to the test by conducting mock drills and walk-through exercises.

School districts in several states–including Colorado, Mississippi, Nebraska, New York, and Pennsylvania–are required by law to develop such plans. Others may not have a mandate but feel compelled by the desire to do all they can to keep their environments safe. What follows is a primer for creating and testing your own district-wide crisis response plan.

Crisis Management 101

Putting together a crisis management plan is no easy task, but if the school violence of the past few years has taught us anything, it’s that there is no excuse for a school not to have one.

“The bottom line is that failure to properly plan indicates a lack of respect for the lives of children and those who dedicate their lives to educating them,” says Michael Dorn, school safety specialist for the Georgia Emergency Management Agency and former chief of police for the public school system in Bibb County, Ga. “Most schools are not properly prepared. A lot think they’re prepared, but they’re not. Some are still asleep at the wheel, hoping and believing that somehow their school is immune.”

So where should you start, and what should your plan include?

Perhaps one of the most dangerous missteps is simply to purchase, for up to $100,000, a “plan in a can,” as Dorn calls them. Such crisis management plans, in and of themselves, are too generic to be useful–and often the consultants who sell them lack experience. Many consultants are excellent, says Dorn, but “a lot of them were doing something else two years ago.”

Another poor choice for schools is copying a plan from another district without tailoring it to their needs.

“Many schools are no longer looking at this cookie-cutter approach, but you still have a lot of people saying, ‘Metal detectors worked in schools A and B, so they’ll work in C through F,’” says Curt Lavarello, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers.

The universal rule of crisis-planning is that all school district offices and all public safety agencies that will respond in times of crisis should be involved in creating the plan. “In some cases, you see plans where the police were not involved in the planning process at all,” Dorn says.

Putting together a plan

Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colo., is one district that spent years researching and preparing a crisis management plan, and administrators believe they are fully prepared to handle a crisis. The district has had a complete, formal crisis management plan in place since 1999.

According to Dr. Ellyn Dickmann, director of the district’s security and school operations office, the plan was five years in the making. Officials began the process by collecting other plans from school districts and colleges and pouring over them. It was apparent their plan had to be unique, but the careful examination of other plans gave officials a solid foundation from which to work.

The district assembled a large committee that represented different school district functions, such as teaching, food services, transportation, and administration. The committee’s job was to collect whatever data and information might be useful. “You collect from the large group,” Dickmann says. “Then you create.” The final plan was put together by a smaller group that included active participation from public safety organizations.

Poudre’s “Crisis Response and Resources” book is separated into three sections. The first is designed to familiarize employees with the general crisis response structure used in the district; the second provides an overview of specific crisis situations and contains basic checklists of important actions; and the third addresses aspects of post-crisis intervention and recovery.

The book’s appendices offer a variety of checklists, forms, and handouts, including a worksheet on how to put together a building crisis response plan. (For a copy of the book, contact Poudre’s Operational Services department–see Resources, page 5).

The district’s plan includes a separate “Crisis Response and Resources Quick Chart,” a color-coded flip chart that covers the main elements of response to all kinds of crises, from severe weather and weapons to suicide and bus accidents.

After the district-wide plan was put together, Poudre’s crisis management team assisted schools in putting together individual site plans, as each school has its own unique needs. For instance, at some of Poudre’s schools, bears and mountain lions have been known to wander through the grounds.

The “Crisis Response and Resources” book is reprinted every two years, with necessary revisions and additions made to the plan. Individual schools look closely at their site plans every year.

The book is the No. 1 resource for all employees in the district. “There’s a crisis response book in every classroom, every janitorial closet, every kitchen,” Dickmann says.

In addition, every school has aerial maps, blueprints, and photos of its specific site. Public safety agencies also have copies of these key elements.

Dickmann says officials tested the plan as they worked on it, walking through specific responses to make sure they worked. The district’s entire crisis response team meets once a year, with smaller groups meeting more frequently. Tabletop discussions are common occurrences, and S.W.A.T. team members and the sheriff’s office practice at school sites at least twice a year.

In fact, Poudre had a live, full-scale exercise planned for July 1997. It was a simulated train accident with injuries and a possible chemical spill. Beforehand, officials held tabletop exercises to test their responses thoroughly.

One week prior to the exercise, a flash flood rushed through the center of Fort Collins, killing five people and injuring 40. What was supposed to be an exercise became a real crisis.

“Thank God we played at the table,” Dickmann says. “Absolutely everything we simulated was used during the emergency, incident command was already in place, lines of communication were already in place. Every problem that we had during the actual flood was planned for, including where parents would meet students, what schools could remain open, and how to rotate staff.”

What’s often overlooked

When preparing an emergency plan, it’s important to remember that your plan must take everything into account: what to do during school, after school, and during special events; plans for incidents in the community; plans for field trips and bus routes.

A key element is to have a master protocol for the whole school district, a set of guidelines for what to do at all schools. This might say, for example, that if you must evacuate a school, you must evacuate by 1,000 feet.

“Public safety can’t keep up with, ‘We do A at this school and B at this one,’” Dorn says. Having a master plan also cuts down on confusion when teachers and administrators are transferred within the district. Dorn suggests that you keep a copy of the master protocol at each school, and the administrators at each site should be responsible for unique site procedures.

When the individual site procedures are drawn up, districts must make sure that all components match so what the site plan says doesn’t contradict what the master plan says.

“If it says, ‘Do X, Y, and Z’ in the master plan, but the flip chart doesn’t match, that becomes exhibit A and B when the school is being sued,” Dorn says.

One problem is that schools often rely solely on flip charts, which are useful in the first five or 10 minutes but aren’t a substitute for a master plan. “Flip charts are like Cliffs Notes,” says Dorn. “The master plan is like War and Peace.”

Another important aspect in preparing an emergency plan is the involvement of local public safety agencies. Schools should insist that these agencies become involved in any crisis planning. Too often, schools turn to S.W.A.T. teams but overlook, fire, police, and emergency management officials, Dorn said.

Another often-overlooked aspect is the need for redundancies in the plan. Wondering how many times is too many to list the 911 protocol? You can never give it too many times. “A teacher’s and administrator’s love for children is a great strength, but in crisis situations they might lock up–often because of that love–and find it hard to function,” Dorn says. “You need redundancies so they don’t lock up.” School administrators in past crises have been so traumatized that they’ve been unable to speak.

Formatting is also key to a successful plan. Often, plans have great content and details, but the information is not accessible. “I’ve seen cases where plans are not indexed, or where indexes don’t match page numbers,” Dorn says. “You should be able to hand your plan to a seventh-grader and have [him] pull up what [he] needs.”

Two other neglected items are the inclusion of family reunification areas and media areas. Both should be separate and removed from the crisis area. Plan on having three or four people show up at the school for each student if there is an emergency. If 2,000 people are in the school, 6,000 people might show up within the first couple of hours.

Making sure it works

Perhaps the most important aspect of putting a plan together is the actual testing of it. Every employee in the district should be trained in crisis response. This training not only instructs staff members on what to do; it also helps them to calm down during an actual event, as they will have been able to simulate their responses beforehand.

Moreover, school districts often find flaws in their plan during practice, which they can correct before an actual emergency occurs.

“A lot of folks plan on paper, but they don’t run the mock incidents,” Lavarello says.

Schools should be sure to test in proper ways, however, to avoid having people get hurt during an exercise. Many school safety experts support the idea of never having students involved in exercises, which often can be traumatic events in themselves. A safety officer whose only task is to make sure the exercise is performed safely also should be involved.

What could go wrong? Dorn has heard of fire trucks backing over role players, police officers loading weapons when they leave an exercise but not unloading them when they return, situations where role-players are not clearly marked and identified, and perimeters not being secured, which have led to people wandering into the exercise area.

In one case, a police officer not involved in an exercise was not briefed, thought an exercise was a real crisis, and shot a non-uniformed police officer who was role-playing as a gunman. In another instance, hysterical parents who heard dispatched reports that emergency personnel were responding to a school “crisis” flooded the district with telephone calls. The painful lessons these communities learned: Make sure you have clearly communicated your intent to run a drill to parents, local law enforcement officials, and other stakeholders.

The bottom line is to plan thoroughly, be redundant, test plans, train, and then train some more.

“School officials should ask themselves some tough questions–they must decide what losses are acceptable in terms of human life, emotional suffering, lost public confidence, and financial losses,” Dorn says. “If the loss of the lives of children and educators is unacceptable, planning efforts will be elaborate. Those who fail to plan sufficiently will bear the responsibility for the needless suffering that they allow to occur through their negligence. School crisis situations are foreseeable events.”

What to do: Responding to a crisis

When crisis occurs, what can school officials do? Here’s a checklist of suggestions to consider before, during, and after a crisis.

Before a crisis:

  1. Develop a written plan that describes intervention procedures and the responsibilities of team members in the event of a crisis. Your plan should include:
    • Training for all school staff members in a range of skills– from dealing with escalating class- room situations to responding to a serious crisis;
    • Reference to district or state procedures;
    • Involvement of community agencies (police, fire and rescue, social and mental health services, etc.); and
    • Provision for the core team to meet regularly to identify potentially troubled or violent students and situations that may be dangerous.

  2. Identify safe areas where students and staff should go in the event of a crisis.
  3. Compile a directory of resources.
  4. Assemble a school emergency kit.
  5. Let parents and students know you have a school safety plan in place.
  6. Designate a media liaison and a media briefing location.
  7. Practice crisis procedures.

During a crisis:

  1. Have a process for securing immediate external support from law enforcement officials and other community agencies.
  2. Communicate within the district through an effective, foolproof communication system.
  3. Communicate with the media on a regular basis.
  4. Support students, staff, and families as they return to the school campus.
  5. Follow a step-by-step checklist of procedures to use when a crisis occurs.

For example:

  • Assess life/safety issues immediately.
  • Provide immediate emergency medical care.
  • Call 911 and notify police/rescue first. Call the superintendent second.
  • Convene the crisis team to assess the situation and implement the crisis response procedures.
  • Evaluate available and needed resources.
  • Alert school staff to the situation..
  • Activate the crisis communication procedure, which should include a system of verification.
  • Secure all areas.
  • Implement evacuation and other procedures to protect students and staff from harm. Avoid dismissing students to unknown care.
  • Adjust the bell schedule to ensure safety during the crisis.
  • Alert persons in charge of various information systems to prevent confusion and misinformation.
  • Notify parents.
  • Contact appropriate community agencies and the school district’s public information office, if appropriate.
  • Implement post-crisis procedures.

After a crisis:

  1. Provide follow-up support to students, staff, and community members.
  2. Help parents understand children’s reactions to violence.
  3. Help teachers and other staff deal with their reactions to the crisis.
  4. Help students and faculty adjust after the crisis.
  5. Help victims and family members of victims re-enter the school environment.
  6. Help students and teachers address the return of a previously removed student to the school community.

Source: National Resource Center For Safe Schools

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