School Climate & Safety Opinion

Comprehensive Emergency Planning for Public Schools (IV): Operational Requirements

May 08, 2008 4 min read
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Once the situations threatening student safety have been identified and prioritized, it’s time to determine the broad categories of activities necessary to meet a school district’s in loco parentis obligations

Perhaps the simplest approach is to consider a time line encompassing what should be accomplished before, during and after each kind of threatening situation. Among other things, this exercise helps to identify activities that are common to all emergencies, or unique to a subset. It also begins to get at particular operational challenges.
To illustrate the process, I’ve drawn a few situations from he extremes of yesterday’s threat matrix – everyday gang activities, natural and man-made disasters that might strike once a year, and terrorism that might occur every decade. In the table below, these situations are placed on the vertical axis. The timeline is on the horizontal axis. I’ve filled in the grid, with a partial list of activities that must take place within the school district.

It is not my intent to do a complete comprehensive emergency plan, but to point out some matters likely to be overlooked by simply transplanting traditional emergency planning models to school systems.

By now readers have probably grasped two crucial differences. In most emergency planning activities:

1) Government does not assume the very daunting legal burden of parenthood in its protection of society. Government has responsibilities to look after school children placed in its care that go far beyond adults in any setting (but incarceration) and even children outside of school.

2) Government’s first responders are emergency services personnel. Teachers are not emergency professionals (fire, police, medical, health, civil defense) but as a practical matter they do constitute the first and primary line of care for the children in their homeroom, classroom or school.


First, The table is that suggests two very different kinds of threats.
Gang violence is a condition to be managed; not a problem to be solved. Planning for this class of emergency revolves around the refining the daily routines that create relationships. The questions here is do the routines work, what is falling between the cracks, ands can the gaps be filled?

In contrast, terrorism and disasters present unique, solvable problems. Emergency management here must focus on the relationships required to build routines. It is about taking the time for planning and preparation. The questions here is whether the capacities required to deal with the threat will be brought to bear in a timely manner, and whether decision makers can work together to make it happen.

Second, teachers are crucial to both kinds of emergencies, but their cooperation and support cannot be assumed by disaster planners as they would other government emergency personnel.

In the case of gang violence, teachers are in the best position of all government employees to become aware of gang members, activities and events. Such information might prevent gang violence in school. On the other hand, teachers must enjoy some degree of student trust if they are to help students learn. The law may well place the teachers obligation to student safety before the obligation to teach, but that fact does nothing to assure that teachers will become police informants. Indeed, it encourages teachers to inquire as little as possible into activities that place them in a conflict of interest. Moreover, schools must balance their emergency obligations to their mission as places of learning – that’s hard to pursue in the atmosphere of a prison. There may be ways to substitute surveillance technology and police methods outside of school for intelligence gained through teachers, but it’s a constraint that emergency planners fail to make explicit at student’s peril.

In the case of a widespread disaster teachers are in the best position of all government employees to care for the students in their charge. They know who needs what medication how often. They can immediately identify the natural leaders, physically weak, psychologically tough, etc. students in their class. And students know them as some kind of authority figure, connection to the government, trustworthy person. In the event students must be evacuate and sheltered away from their parents, teachers will be essential to some kind of human order and discipline. However, the more widespread the disaster, the more likely more of a school’s teachers will be needed at home, with their own families and their own children. It may be reasonable for emergency planners to count upon 95% of police, fire and civil defense personnel to stay at their posts, but even if the law requires teachers to do the same, it would be unreasonable to expect them to follow suit.

As I see it, the crucial gap in emergency planning for school districts flows from the disconnect between the in loco parentis obligation of school districts, and the expected performance of the required to meet that responsibility. I fear that thinking about the latter is optimistic, and so I’m pessimistic about the actual level of support students will receive. Turning this around will require new thinking.

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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