Schools fall short in preparing for emergencies

When it comes to preparing for emergencies, the nation’s schools could be getting better grades, a new report says.

While most school districts have plans for dealing with emergencies such as terrorist attacks, hurricanes, or flu pandemics, those plans often fall short of what is needed, according to an analysis by the congressional Government Accountability Office (GAO).

For example, about half of school districts don’t have plans for continuing to educate students in the event of a lengthy school closure; school districts generally are not working with first responders or other community officials on how to implement emergency plans; 28 percent of school districts with emergency plans do not have specific provisions for evacuating students with disabilities in an emergency; and two-thirds of districts reported a lack of expertise and equipment, such as two-way radios and adequate locks for school buildings, as impediments to emergency planning.

Cornelia Ashby, director of education issues for the GAO, summarized the agency’s findings for the House Homeland Security Committee on May 17.

Holly Kuzmich, deputy chief of staff at the U.S. Department of Education (ED), said the department requires school districts to certify that they have emergency-management plans before they can get grants under the Safe and Drug-Free Schools and Communities program. But Kuzmich acknowledged the department doesn’t assess the quality of those emergency plans.

Committee Chairman Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., said he intends to change that. "I assure you that we will tighten that part of the requirement up, so there is some review of whatever is submitted," he said.

As school leaders look to shore up their emergency plans, a recent addition to eSchool News Online can help: Earlier this year, eSchool News and the International Society for Technology in Education teamed up to launch the SAFE (School Actions For Emergencies) Center, an organic online resource that includes "best-of-breed" examples of planning documents covering key types of disasters and emergencies.

Under the "Emergencies" tab of the SAFE Center, you’ll find links to resources grouped by disaster type; click on "Shootings," for example, and you’ll have access to dozens of materials to help you prepare or react. These include links to the National Education Association’s "Crisis Communication Guide & Toolkit," along with the U.S. Department of Education’s emergency-planning web site. In addition, there are links to model school crisis management plans from the California and Virginia education departments.

The "Shootings" section is just one of more than a dozen resource areas in the SAFE Center. Other sections help school leaders plan for emergencies such as bomb threats, terrorist attacks, and pandemics, as well as natural disasters such as hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, and floods.

At the May 17 House committee hearing, lawmakers also criticized the Bush administration for planning to cut a program that provides grants to districts to keep schools free of drugs and violence.

The administration wants to cut the Safe and Drug-Free Schools grant program from $300 million to about $100 million and wants to give the money to states to dole out, rather than directly to districts, Kuzmich said.

Lawmakers and witnesses also criticized the quality of data available on school violence.

Generally, such information comes from surveys of principals and students rather than from actual crime data such as police reports, said Ken Trump, a consultant on school safety issues.

Rep. Carolyn McCarthy, D-N.Y., is pushing legislation that would require federal education officials to collect data on crimes that occur at schools from law-enforcement officials. The information then would have to be passed along to states.

"If we don’t have correct data up to date, we don’t know what schools are actually violent," McCarthy said.

Trump said the 2002 No Child Left Behind law has placed so much pressure on school administrators to boost academic scores that school safety issues have been relegated to the back burner.

The education law includes a provision that allows students in schools labeled "persistently dangerous" to transfer to other schools. However, few schools ever get that designation. The largest state, California, has never had a single school labeled persistently dangerous.

Robert Sica, a special agent in charge at the Threat Assessment Center at the Homeland Security Department, said assailants usually tell other people about attacks before they occur and typically are planning violence in a misguided attempt to solve a problem.

"Despite all of our best efforts, we will never prevent every incident of targeted violence in schools, and I think we have to accept that," Sica said.


GAO Report on School Emergency Preparedness

SAFE Center

U.S. Department of Education

ED’s Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools

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