Yesterday, the Obama administration released the comprehensive emergency guidelines for school districts it had first promised after the school shootings in Newtown, Conn. this winter.
The guidelines were written jointly by the U.S. departments of Education, Homeland Security, Justice, and Health and Human Services, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and contain lessons and suggestions from each. They deal with prevention, protection, mitigation, response, and recovery from technological, human-caused, natural, and biological threats. The document is quite thorough, touching on everything from school design and storm shelters to planning emergency drills to balancing privacy and safety.
It’s important to note that this is explicitly a guide, not a new set of federal requirements. It reads as a compilation of the lessons and best practices that have been gleaned from agencies and schools that have had to cope with various types of emergencies in the past.
Though the report’s recommendations about storm cellars and buildings will seem particularly timely after the tornadoes in Oklahoma this spring, the active shooter section that was developed in response to Newtown is particularly resonant and in-depth.
That section addresses head on the debate that raged this spring about whether school employees should be armed, as the National Rifle Association suggested this winter: This guide says that, though it may be frightening, staff should be asked to consider confronting active shooters as a last resort, noting that in a study, 16 out of 41 active-shooter events were stopped by potential victims. But, the guide specifies, “the possibility of an active shooter situation is not justification for the presence of firearms on campus in the hands of any personnel other than law enforcement officers.”
A Detailed Look at Emergency Planning
The guidance starts more broadly. It details a six-part process for schools looking to develop emergency plans: Forming a collaborative team, understanding threats, determining goals and objectives, developing specific courses of actions, reviewing plans, and implementing and maintaining the plan. Schools are encouraged to reach out to other local agencies as they assess the threats they face and their capacity to respond to them.
The guidelines also include a list of specific questions and possibilities for planning committees to consider. For instance: How will a school account for all people? How will warnings and important messages be communicated? What would a lockdown look like and when would it be employed? How will families be reunited? How will a school deal with the physical and mental health issues that arise after a tragedy?
Four specific areas get a “closer look.” There’s a section about the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA, and frequently asked questions about how and when those guidelines apply in emergencies. A section on school climate encourages districts to create positive, less-punitive environments so students feel safe reporting potential threats. Another section highlights Psychological First Aid for Schools, which is aimed at helping school communities recover from traumatic events. The final section focuses on dealing with active shooters.
The guidelines emphasize that there is no foolproof way to identify a potential active shooter or to respond to the event once it’s begun. Each case is unique, though there are some signs that have been identified by the FBI and others (acquisitions of weapons, or fascination with previous shootings) as potential tip-offs.
Despite the inherent unpredictability of these situations, the report suggests, students and staff should be trained to recognize and attempt to defuse volatile situations; learn the best steps for survival if a situation does erupt; and work with law enforcement during the response. Law enforcement should be included in drills so that first responders are familiar with procedures and with the school building, and so students and school employees know what to expect.
Before threats even occur, schools should develop multidisciplinary threat assessment teams, or TATs, to identify troubled students, parents, school employees, or others who may become violent. A TAT might include a principal, a counselor, law enforcement personnel, and other school employees. The report has more details about how a TAT might go about assessing threats.
The guidelines for how to respond to an active shooter are, again, situational, but there are some clear suggested actions: Assess possible escape routes and flee the situation with your charges, if at all possible, leaving belongings behind; if that’s not feasible, hide in as safe a place as possible and communicate with law enforcement officers until given an all-clear.
The guide also includes suggestions for coping with the aftermath of such events, including establishing a plan to avoid unwanted media outreach, giving regular updates on the situation to the communities, and ensuring that there’s a plan for reuniting victims and families.
We wrote about some of the tough decisions schools face after school shootings this winter. Here’s hoping we won’t have to do another one any time soon.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Rules for Engagement blog.