The national heads of education and homeland security have announced a new web site and $30 million to help school officials prepare for emergencies such as natural disasters, violent crimes, and terrorist acts.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige and U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge made the announcements March 7 at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md.

“The midst of a crisis is not the time to start figuring out who ought to do what. At that moment, everyone involved—from top to bottom—should know the drill and know each other,” Paige said.

The web site, an addition to U.S. Department of Education’s (ED’s) site, is intended to serve as one-stop shop for information and federal guidance on handling emergencies.

Many schools already had emergency plans before the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States—but in the wake of the attacks, school safety experts have urged schools to revisit their plans to account for new threats such as chemical or biological weapons. The federal No Child Left Behind Act also requires schools to have comprehensive crisis response plans in place.

“The tide of events since September 11, 2001 demands that schools be better prepared. We’re here to help—to provide more information and resources and to highlight programs we know work,” Paige said.

The site includes links to online resources, as well as examples of emergency-response plans from the Montgomery County, Md., and Fairfax County, Va., school systems and North Carolina public schools.

This spring, school districts can begin applying for their share of the additional $30 million available to help them improve their emergency plans. Schools can use the funds to train school staff, parents, and students how to respond to a crisis; coordinate their response with local fire and police stations; purchase necessary equipment; and match up with organizations responsible for disaster recovery issues.

Besides working with the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies on school preparedness, ED has consulted experts from around the country to develop a model emergency response and crisis management plan, which will be released later this month.

ED’s model plan will include the following tips:

  • If your school doesn’t have a crisis plan that was created in partnership with public safety, police, fire, health, mental health, and local emergency-preparedness agencies, consult with these agencies to develop one. Make sure it addresses crises such as fires, school shootings, and accidents, as well as biological, radiological, chemical, and other terrorist activities.
  • If you do have a crisis plan, review it. Ensure that it addresses issues related to terrorism, such as biological, radiological, and chemical attacks.
  • Train, practice, and drill.

Each school crisis plan should address four major areas: prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. Here are the steps each school should include in these four areas:

Prevention and mitigation

  • Assess each school building for factors that put the building, students, and staff at greater risk, such as proximity to railroad tracks that regularly transport hazardous materials or facilities that produce highly toxic material or propane gas tanks. Develop a plan for reducing the risk, including plans to evacuate students from these areas in times of crisis or repositioning propane tanks or other hazardous materials away from school buildings.
  • Work with businesses and factories near the school to ensure that the school’s crisis plan is coordinated with their crisis plans.
  • Put a process in place for controlling school access and egress. Require all persons who do not have authority to be in the school to sign in.
  • Review traffic patterns, and—where possible—keep cars, buses, and trucks away from school buildings.
  • buildings are not obscured by overgrowth of bushes or shrubs where contraband can be placed or persons can hide.

Preparedness

  • Make site plans for each school facility readily available to emergency response units. Make sure they are shared with first responders and agencies responsible for emergency preparedness.
  • Ensure there are multiple evacuation routes and rallying points in case first or second choices are blocked or unavailable at the time of the crisis.
  • Practice responding to crises on a regular basis.
  • Established a communication process to use during a crisis.
  • Inspect equipment to ensure it operates during crisis situations.
  • Have a plan for discharging students. Remember that during a crisis, many parents and guardians may not be able to get to the school to pick up their children. Make sure every student has a secondary contact person. Make contact information readily available.
  • Have a plan for communicating information to parents and for quelling rumors. Cultivate relationships with the news media ahead of time, and identify a public information officer to communicate with the news media and the community during a crisis.
  • Work with law enforcement officials and emergency-preparedness agencies on a strategy for sharing key parts of your school crisis plans.

Response

  • Develop a command structure for responding to a crisis that includes the roles and responsibilities for educators, law enforcement and fire officials, and other first responders in responding to different types of crises.

Recovery

  • Return to the business of teaching and learning as soon as possible.
  • Identify and approve a team of credentialed mental health workers to provide mental health services to faculty and students after a crisis. Understand that recovery takes place over time and that the services of this team may be needed over an extended period.
  • Ensure the team is adequately trained.
  • Notify parents of actions you intend to take to help students recover from the crisis.

Links:

ED’s Emergency Planning web site
http://www.ed.gov/emergencyplan

U.S. Department of Homeland Security
http://www.dhs.gov

Ready Campaign
http://www.ready.gov