The reality is that it’s not if school emergencies occur--it's when, and emergency preparedness is essential for school leadership.

Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best: School leadership for emergencies

The unfortunate reality is that it’s not a matter of if an emergency impacts a school--it’s a matter of when

According to The Washington Post, more than 331,000 children at more than 350 schools have experienced gun violence during school hours since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999. And while school shootings tend to capture news headlines, they are not the only ill plaguing schools today.

According to the CDC, about one in five high school students report being bullied on school property. These numbers do not include the faculty and staff that may have also been affected by these situations. Not to mention the increase in severe weather events – in the first three months of 2023, schools across the nation have scrambled to secure buildings and protect students because of heavy snow, rain, flooding, tornadoes and wildfires.  

The unfortunate reality is that it’s not a matter of if an emergency impacts a school–it’s a matter of when. And when an adverse incident occurs, time is of the essence. Here are three tips to help educational leaders effectively manage safety gaps and mitigate risks in their school community and ensure a swift response.

Revaluate current safety plans

The backbone of emergency preparedness is a comprehensive, well-articulated and practiced plan that identifies important resources, key stakeholders, and communication methods that will be utilized throughout an incident. At a minimum, plans should be reevaluated before the beginning of the school year and then again at the beginning of the calendar year to ensure that new protocols and technologies are being considered and implemented for every scenario. For example, schools in the normally wildfire-prone areas out West may want to revisit their emergency plans after the flooding that has polarized that part of the country in 2023.

When updating plans, leaders should remember to include the technologies that are part of their school safety ecosystem. It’s not always easy to keep pace with progress, but technology can be a game changer when it comes to school safety. Innovative solutions help schools with access control, video surveillance, emergency notification and incident management. Thanks to the influx in federal, state, and local grants, schools that have been behind on innovation can now purchase security systems, multimodal alerting solutions and panic button apps.  The state of Texas, for example, has released more than $450 million dollars in funding in recent months so that more than five million students in 8,000 schools are protected from harm.

Invest in technology that serves more than one purpose

Most educational leaders recognize the value in having access control systems, video surveillance technologies, and other hard-wired solutions that help to secure school buildings and protect the precious occupants within. These systems play a major role in deterring unwanted visitors from entering facilities. Throughout the school year, administrators should remind the school community about access protocols and the importance of adhering to traffic patterns as part of an overall emergency preparedness plan.

Once within the confines of a school building, technology is key. Leaders should assess their onsite communication and collaboration capabilities with a keen eye on engagement and efficiencies. For example, while a physical red emergency button attached to a wall in a school may effectively summon first responders to the scene of a crisis, the technology may prove to be inadequate for the following reasons:

  • An incident occurs in a hallway, classroom, or cafeteria not equipped with one of these devices.
  • The system alerts police but does not convey what type of emergency is taking place, reducing awareness.
  • Key stakeholders in adjacent classrooms, school offices, or offsite personnel are not looped in during that initial push of a button.

Before making an investment in innovation, school officials should connect with their local 9-1-1 counterparts to ensure their new technology will integrate with public safety systems. Ask key questions such as: Will this technology allow teachers, administrators, staff, and school resource officers to easily communicate in a timely manner when an emergency occurs? Will key stakeholders, onsite and off, be looped in as an incident unfolds? Are first responders part of the initial wave of communications and are they receiving data including device location, facility information, and type of activation to help with situational awareness?  Does your panic button solution broadcast to other channels including digital signage, video systems, access controls, websites, sirens, and IoT-ready devices? Are you able to use two-way communication for live-streaming video and status checks?

Collaboration and communication are the cornerstones of safety

Last, but certainly not least, communication and collaboration are two critical considerations when developing the cornerstones of a good safety plan.

Schools can invest in technology that offers an incident sharing platform that allows all stakeholders—including those in the school, public safety and other responding agencies—to be on the same page during emergency response. When you think about the number of agencies that respond to mass casualty events or even the medical mishaps that happen more frequently in a school setting, the need for timely information-sharing cannot be overstated.

Schools and public safety agencies are increasingly using geo-targeted safety solutions too. By establishing smart proximity alerts, for example, schools can be informed about incidents that are unfolding in the area. These warnings provide schools with additional time to secure buildings and go into lockdown mode. Schools can determine what types of events to flag, the radius for these events, and which stakeholders need to know, rather than alerting all members of the school community and possibly creating message fatigue. By automatically integrating with your local 9-1-1 system, this process can be done easily and is highly informative. 

When it comes to school safety, today’s administrators have a daunting task before them. By revisiting school protocols, ushering in new safety tech solutions, consistently sharing information with the school community, and ensuring that all the right stakeholders are looped in when an emergency occurs, school leaders will sleep better at night.

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