Best Practices for School Safety and Emergency Preparedness Planning

Optimal Strategies for School Safety and Emergency Response Planning

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The increasing incidence of school shootings has sparked a nationwide conversation about school safety. Parents frequently urge school boards and superintendents to enhance their school safety plans, security measures, and emergency protocols. It’s crucial for school administrators to actively discuss school safety and periodically review their strategies to ensure alignment with established best practices.

Optimal Strategies for Ensuring School Safety and Emergency Readiness

There are five crucial areas of focus:

  1. Educational Programs: Implement training for all school staff, including administrators, teachers, and support personnel (like school resource officers, security officers, secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, etc.). This training should cover best practices in preventing school violence, enhancing school security, assessing school threats, and planning for school emergencies.
  2. Security Assessment: Regularly evaluate and improve the security measures in place at the school.
  3. Emergency Preparedness: Keep the school’s emergency preparedness plans up-to-date and conduct regular drills to ensure everyone knows what to do in case of an emergency.
  4. Public Safety Collaboration: Foster strong relationships with public safety officials.
  5. Communication Plans: Develop comprehensive crisis communication plans and strategies for social media use.

Expanded points for five key strategy areas:

  1. Training Programs: School administrators, teachers, and support staff (including school resource officers, security officers, secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, etc.) should be trained on school threat assessment, violence prevention, crime prevention practices, security procedures and awareness, and emergency planning best practices. A well-trained and highly alert school staff and student body serve as the first and most effective line of defense.
  2. Security Measures Evaluation and Refinement: Security is often associated with tangible measures such as metal detectors, surveillance cameras, police and security officers. These measures are crucial in many school systems, especially large urban districts with a history of weapons-related incidents. However, the effectiveness of these measures depends on the human element managing them. It’s important to remember that even prisons with stringent security measures still experience incidents of drugs, sexual assaults, weapons, gangs, and even murders. Therefore, when security equipment is used in schools, it should be seen as a supplement to a comprehensive school safety program rather than a substitute. Basic security measures can include cost-effective strategies like reducing the number of open doors, maintaining functional communication systems, trimming trees and shrubs to improve visibility, and establishing procedures for accurate and timely reporting of school crimes. These security measures can be incorporated into the design of new schools and remodeling projects.
  3. Updating and Practicing School Emergency Preparedness Plans
  • Most schools established emergency/crisis plans following the Columbine attack in April 1999. However, evaluations of these plans across the country reveal that many are not being utilized effectively. They exist on paper but are often neglected. The gaps in these plans include questionable content, insufficient staff training, and a lack of practice in cooperation with public safety partners. A written plan is only as effective as its implementation.
  • School emergency plans should include preparedness procedures such as lockdowns, evacuations, parent-student reunification procedures, mobilizing school transportation during the school day, emergency communications protocols with parents and the media, and mobilizing mental health services.
  • Regular meetings between school officials and their public safety partners (Police, Fire, Emergency Medical Services, and Emergency Management Agencies) are crucial to discuss safety, security, and emergency planning strategies.
  • School crisis teams need to be trained. Schools should have both district-level and building-level plans. These plans should be reviewed (in cooperation with public safety partners) and updated at least annually.
  • Schools need to work with public safety officials to identify potential staging areas for media, parents, medical personnel, and others who will respond in an emergency.
  • School emergency plans need to be practiced to reach their maximum potential usefulness. While full-scale simulation drills are valuable in teaching important lessons, they are very time and labor-intensive in their planning. Schools are strongly encouraged to hold tabletop exercises with their district and building crisis teams, public safety and community agency partners, and other key stakeholders. Tabletops allow schools to work through hypothetical scenarios to see if the plans they have on paper would work in a real emergency.
  • Schools should practice lockdown drills over the course of a school year as they do fire drills, tornado drills, and other drills. Drills should be practiced realistically, such as during lunch hours, not simply when it is convenient and least disruptive to the school day.
  1. Strengthening Partnerships with Public Safety Officials
  • School administrators and crisis team members should meet regularly with public safety partners. These partners should be involved in the development and updating of school emergency plans and tabletop exercises.
  • Schools should number each entrance/exit door so first responders can easily identify specific entrances/exits when called to respond to an incident or manage a tactical response.
  • Schools should provide police and fire departments with updated floor plans and blueprints for their reference for tactical responses.
  • Police are strongly encouraged to train and practice rapid response to active shooter techniques. Schools should make their facilities available after-hours or on weekends so SWAT teams can practice responding to scenarios in these settings.
  1. Creating Enhanced Crisis Communications Plans and Social Media Strategies
  • Communication is often an afterthought, which is why it has been a failure in some of the worst school shootings. Schools need multiple strategies to communicate.
  • Conduct an assessment of existing crisis communications plans. If no formal crisis communications plan exists, create one.
  • Evaluate social media strategy.

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