School Climate & Safety Opinion

Comprehensive Emergency Planning for Public Schools (III): A Threat Matrix

May 06, 2008 3 min read
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School systems have developed their response strategies in the aftermath of events suggesting a more widespread threat to students. The results of this ad hoc approach constitutes the district’s current emergency response operation. It’s important to remember that this system is based on political history more than policy or analysis.

Ultimately what’s in place and how it got there will determine the gap between requirements and capabilities, and say a lot about political, organizational and cultural obstacles to its closure. But it’s important not to get caught up in the story too early - and - potentially swayed by its internal logic. Whatever the subject of analysis - from nations to retail stores, I would begin a comprehensive emergency planning assessment by taking out a blank sheet of paper and developing an understanding of the plausible situations that might place students’ safety and security at risk.

The simple exercise involves filling in a “threat matrix” with independent research and input from the client’s employees - in this case everyone from the superintendent, to teachers, to parents and students, as well as the obvious emergency planning personnel. Not only is their knowledge useful, but this is the time to make them aware of the process and start building the buy-in essential to the success of any planning effort.
This is the first point of emergency planning. Success will be measured in a real emergency, by the extent to which people play the parts laid out in the plan. Buy-in and consciousness-raising are especially important when “civilians” play a crucial role. I don’t think there are too many emergency situations where the line is manned by people whose day job is not emergency response than those affecting schools.

The horizontal axis of the matrix measures the probability of a threatening situation - from most to least likely. One approach is to consider the chances that the event will occur daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, every decade, or more.

The vertical axis measures the consequences of the potential situation - from less damage to more. I’ve used an approach that goes from students, to classrooms, to one school, to many schools, and then the whole district, as a proxy for measuring the consequences of any event for the school systems population.

I believe my take on specific threats is self-explanatory. In a large district individual medical emergencies occur daily. But a drive-by shooting of a student is a different emergency from a heart failure following an asthma attack, and maybe less frequent. Depending on how one defines a “gang” “fight,” they may occur more or less frequently than a shooting, but involves more students. A deranged student who enters a school armed with an intent to kill classmates is different from a situation where terrorists decide to take a school and hold students hostage. And at some point events like earthquakes, riots and industrial accidents encompass whole parts of the city - including the schools within, or even the whole district.

I’m sure there are more situations to add and that people may disagree about placement on the matrix. This in fact is the point of the exercise. Different schools may have different threats, different levels of staff may have different views on the likelihood and severity of any given threats. One can imagine sessions across the district leading ultimately to a much better appreciation of the probable threat matrix, and at least as important - attitudes towards current response strategies, responders, and the utility or futility of planning. The latter will be vital to subsequents steps in the planning process.

Marc Dean Millot is the editor of School Improvement Industry Week and K-12 Leads and Youth Service Markets Report. His firm provides independent information and advisory services to business, government and research organizations in public education.

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