We Can’t Guarantee Perfect School Security, but…

Best practices, such as the DHS' four phases of emergency management, threat assessments and parental engagement can greatly improve safety.
Published: May 28, 2014

The April 9 mass stabbing at Franklin Regional High School was another senseless school tragedy in America. Another day of circling helicopters, 24-hour media coverage with parents, schools and communities asking why. Perhaps because no children were killed or the weapon was a knife instead of a firearm, it seems that more quickly than usual the communities unaffected by the tragedy have hit the school safety snooze button, snuggled under their “it can’t happen here” blanket and gone back to sleep.

Although these types of tragedies are rare in our schools, we’re getting much better at responding to them. Many schools now have all-hazards emergency response plans, and teachers and staff have been trained and empowered to act in an emergency. Sadly, we are still not doing a very good job at preventing these events from occurring. If we truly want to make our schools safe, here are the things we must improve.

Adopt the 4 Phases of Emergency Management
First, we must utilize the four phases of emergency management as recommended by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. The first phase is the prevention mitigation stage. During this phase, a security and vulnerability assessment (SVA) are conducted to look at potential risks to school facilities. These SVAs include everything from hazards in the school community to the storage of chemicals in the building. A SVA looks at policies and procedures from how money is handled in the building to how keys are inventoried for access control. A SVA includes a 300-point questionnaire, an interview with the building administrator and a visit to the school to document both best practices and areas of concern. Results from the SVA can be used to develop a budget to abate risks over time. Strategies are developed to mitigate or reduce the effects of events that cannot be prevented. This could be anything from a weather event to a chemical spill due to a train derailment near campus.

In the second phase—planning—schools work with first responders to develop an all-hazards emergency response plan (ERP) for events that are most likely to occur in the schools. Fortunately, the U.S. Department of Education and DHS have identified the hazards most likely to occur. It is important to work with first responders in developing these plans as they are the subject matter experts, and the school’s plans should match police, fire and EMS’ response to an incident. Two critical components of the planning stage are training and exercises. Staff must be trained for their specific roles during an event.

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Too often, the training given to staff only relates to active shooter events.

Although the active shooter event is categorized as high impact, it is also categorized as low probability. Staff members cannot be prepared for every possible event, so it is more important to train them for the events are more likely to occur. It is far more likely for a staff member to respond to an injury on the playground than to an active shooter. By training staff members to respond to events more likely to occur, they will be better prepared for any event. If staff were only trained in how to respond in an active shooter event, not only would they fail in the response to a gunman, but they would also fail at the events more likely to occur.

Regardless of how well plans are written, if they are never exercised, schools will not know if they are effective. Districts should work with their first responders to conduct both tabletop exercises (TTX) and full scale exercises (FSE). Districts should implement a schedule of one TTX per year and one FSE every three to five years to ensure plans are adequate and the staff is properly trained in their response. These exercises should be reported by the media so parents know the school is working continuously to keep the students safe and to send a message to those who might be considering bringing harm to the school. These exercises demonstrate the school is not a soft target.

The third phase, response, is the implementation of the plans developed with first responders. A key component to the response is the after-action review and report. During this process, districts look at all the actions done correctly during the incident and what needs to be improved in the event of future incidents. This may result in changes and modifications of the emergency response plan. Any additions or modifications will require additional training of staff and an exercise to test that training.

The final phase is the recovery phase. In this phase, schools return to the business of educating children as soon as possible. In the event of a fire in a building, this might require the district to utilize their continuity of operations plan and move students and staff to an alternative location. In the event of an incident in which injuries or death occurred, personnel trained in critical incident stress management will be needed to assist the students and staff in dealing with the emotional trauma cause by the event.

Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series
Strategy & Planning Series