One week after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut, school officials again are asking whether they have enough measures in place to try to prevent a similar tragedy.
Two school safety experts showed best practices and answered urgent questions during a Dec. 21 webinar, “Planning For and Managing the School Crisis You Hope Never Comes,” sponsored by the National School Boards Association’s Office of General Counsel and the Council of School Attorneys (COSA). The webinar was designed to be an overview of tactics and resources to prevent and respond to a wide range of catastrophes, from natural disasters, shootings and other crimes, or technological and medical emergencies, such as a pandemic flu.
School safety practices have evolved tremendously since the Columbine High School shootings 13 years ago, said presenter Shamus O’Meara, a partner with the Minneapolis law firm Johnson Condon, Attorneys at Law P.A., who represented and advised the Red Lake and Rocori school districts, both in Minnesota, in their school shooting incidents. The second presenter, Rick Kaufman, was the communications director for Colorado’s Jefferson County School District during the Columbine shootings and is executive director of community relations and emergency management for the Bloomington Public Schools, also in Minnesota.
School safety plans no longer involve a simple grid that lives in a drawer—instead, they are comprehensive plans that address strategies for prevention and mitigation, preparedness, recovery, and response. The presenters encouraged school districts to build such a plan in partnership with other agencies, including law enforcement, local government, and public health. School climate and programs to deal with issues such as bullying are key to preventing incidents as well.
Out of more than 180 participants on the webinar, 86 percent reported having reviewed their school districts’ safety plan in the past year, which is a good sign, O’Meara said.
An important consideration is community involvement and recognizing the community’s values when making choices within a comprehensive plan, he added.
School officials should also practice those crisis plans regularly and ensure all new staff are adequately trained. An outside safety audit can correct weaknesses and a safety team can address ongoing needs and new issues that arise.
The speakers did not make any recommendations on the issue of allowing school administrators or teachers to carry guns. Another issue that surfaced on Friday was a proposal by the National Rifle Association (NRA) for a national school safety program that would pay for armed school safety officers at any school that wanted one. Major issues to consider include how to train school staff and how frequently, how the guns would be carried or stored, and whether the money could be better spent on other violence prevention programs, O’Meara said.
If a disaster does occur, Kaufman offered these–and many other–recommendations for communications with parents, school staff, and the media:
- Mobilize a response team that shields the site, students, and staff from outside forces;
- Make a call for assistance before it’s too late;
- Understand it’s not “business as usual”;
- Act in the short-term, but think in the long-term;
- Know key messages and stick to them;
- Don’t allow media to dominate school officials’ time, attention.
School districts looking for resources to update or revamp their existing school safety plans should first contact their state school boards association, COSA Director Sonja Trainor suggested.
An audio recording of the webinar is available on NSBA’s school safety resources website. Other resources that the speakers recommended include:
National Fire Protection Association; NFPA 1600 Emergency Preparedness Standard: Voluntary standards for prevention, mitigation, preparation, response and recovery from emergencies for public, non-profit and private entities
The Final Report and Findings of The Safe School Initiative: Implications for the Prevention of School Attacks in the United States; U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education
Prior Knowledge of Potential School-Based Violence: Information Students Learn May Prevent a Targeted Attack U.S. Secret Service and U.S. Department of Education
“Emergency Exercises: An Effective Way to Validate School Safety Plans,” ERCM Express Newsletter, U.S. Department of Education
A Guide to Vulnerability Assessments: Key Principles for Safe Schools, U.S. Department of Education
Action Guide for Institutions of Higher Learning, U.S. Department of Education
School Safety: Lessons Learned, U.S. Attorneys Office, Minn.
Complete Crisis Communication and Management Manual, National School Public Relations Association, Rick Kaufman (2009)