On December 14, 2012, the planning of the late Dawn Lafferty Hochsprung, principal of Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut, saved the lives of 12 students during what CBS News called “one of the worst mass shootings in U.S. history.” Previously, she had taught students an emergency escape route out of the school. So, when the perpetrator’s semi-automatic rifle jammed, those 12 students who had been in his sights seized the opportunity and used the route to get away. That incident demonstrates the enormous benefit of district safety planning: In a crisis, people will know what action to take rather than trying to figure out what to do in the midst of chaos.

In order to accomplish this, the district safety plan should be digitized and available on all staff computers and to all staff members—even coaches, advisors, midyear hires, and substitutes. It is essential that every staff member understands what to do during an emergency.

Of course, there are tasks you’ll need to undertake before reaching that point, and I’ve outlined three essential ones below: developing the plan, holding “courageous conversations,” and no- to low-cost enhancements.

Essential steps in district safety and security planning

Developing a district safety plan

An effective safety plan is shaped by a variety of knowledge, experience, and perspectives on the different aspects of a potential emergency. The best way to achieve this is to assemble a multidisciplinary team that meets on a monthly basis. Team members should consist of these three main groups:

  • Government agencies, e.g., law enforcement, the fire department, and/or the emergency medical field
  • School personnel – administrators, educators, counselors, and legal counsel
  • Community representatives – students, parents, and community leaders

While each district should devise a safety plan that accommodates its particular circumstances, below are eight common factors that should be considered while developing your plan.

  1. Delegation: School leaders need to consider to whom they can delegate tasks during and after an incident and establish how the central office and cabinet will continue to function
  2. The chain of command for incident response: Everyone needs to know who will be in charge until first responders arrive
  3. Reunification processes: This includes evacuating the building, locations for harboring students, and procedures for reuniting them with their parents
  4. Communication: The school leader should be the primary communicator, particularly with parents, so they need to consider the response team and technology (e.g., mobile apps, social media, backup communications systems) they’d require for crisis communications
  5. Press protocols
  6. Self-care for crisis leaders
  7. Debriefing: “Frontline” staff are one of the key groups from whom you will gain insights on an incident
  8. Managing recovery: No two recoveries will be alike

About the Author:

Dr. Joe Erardi is a retired superintendent from Newtown, Connecticut, who has been recognized as the outstanding school superintendent in Connecticut in 2017 and school administrator of the year in 2016. Presently, Erardi coordinates the American Association School Administrators safety website and has served as an executive board member of AASA for three years.


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