School Climate & Safety

Education Department Offers ‘Preview’ of Emergency Plans for Schools

By Nirvi Shah — April 12, 2013 3 min read
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An Education Department official outlined components of school emergency plans to rural school leaders Thursday, saying it was a preview of the model plans the Obama administration promised to provide by May.

In January, President Barack Obama said the departments of Education, Justice, Health and Human Services, and Homeland Security would collaborate on model emergency plans for schools, part of a series of measures he proposed following the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Conn., in December.

During a call with rural education leaders Thursday about emergency planning for rural schools, David Esquith, the director of the Education Department’s office of safe and healthy students, told listeners “What you’re getting today is a bit of a preview of what may be in those guides.”

Among the steps he told rural school leaders to consider when developing emergency plans—steps that would presumably apply to any school district, he said:

Leaders must lead: “Planning really begins with support from senior leadership at the district and school level. Unless the leadership is on board with comprehensive emergency-management planning, what you may end up with is a document that may be put on a shelf or in a drawer and is not as useful as it could be.”

Collaboration counts:"Planning must be conducted in close collaboration with community partners,” Esquith said, noting that a gap identified by a Government Accountability Office study of school emergency planning is that more communication is needed between schools and first responders—before an emergency occurs. “We know that when these emergencies occur, if first responders—police officers, fire officials—are familiar with the school, with the school personnel, with the layout of that school, the development of those plans, their work is likely to be more successful. If it’s their first time on that campus [during an incident], a great deal of confusion can occur.”

Prepare for every disaster: Think man-made and natural, he said, from “severe weather to biological terrorism to disease outbreaks to active shooter incidents.” But also consider what events a school would be most susceptible to.

Consider everyone: Plans should consider English-language learners, for example, and students with disabilities. And keep in mind that the day something happens, there may be substitute teachers or other personnel who aren’t always a part of a school’s daily routine.

Consider everywhere: Esquith recounted the recent case of a boy kidnapped from a school bus in Alabama. “Address all settings at all times: During the school day, after the school day,” he said, and school field trips.

Be specific: Plans should be tailored to individual schools and individual school buildings, if necessary, if a campus is composed of multiple structures.

Train before drilling: “If everyone has not gone through a training ahead of time, then your drill is likely to be fairly chaotic,” Esquith said. Good training includes running through hypothetical scenarios and discussing reactions in a stress-free environment first. And once a drill has been run, there should be a debriefing about what may need to be done differently. “We know for school systems across the country, one of their premium commodities is time,” Esquith said, but investing time in this kind of planning is invaluable. “I’ve had the opportunity to talk to a number of folks up at Newtown, including one of the heroic teachers that was wounded during that incident. People knew what to do when the message went over the loudspeaker that they had to be in lockdown.”

Before, during, after: Emergency plans should articulate how people should react at all stages of an event and consider things such as how students will be reunited with their families and how are they accounted for during an incident.

Consider school climate: Esquith said a Secret Service study of school shootings during the 1990s found that students are likely to talk about a violent event if they are planning one. Students need to feel that they have someone to confide in at their schools if they have information about classmates, and to feel connected to school in the first place.

Follow Rules for Engagement on Twitter @Rulz4Engagement and Education Week Staff Writer Nirvi Shah on Twitter @NirviShah.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.