Jingle bells are in the air and we are all busy with Christmas preparations. Then, this week the face of evil shocks us with a shooting which killed 20 innocent children as they did what children do each day, attended school. Now is the time to ask the question, “How safe are my children at school?” Do a little research now and spend some of that holiday break discussing as a family, what would happen if there is an emergency while they are at school. Give your children and grandchildren the greatest gift you can this holiday, a safe school environment and peace of mind should that emergency happens.
When I did some research for the design of the ideal Totally Ready college emergency kit, I discovered a few universities have plans in place to provide for students during an emergency. Yet, they all recommend students be prepared with their own 72 hour kit and a good auto emergency kit for travel between their hometown and the campus.
The United States Department of Education has made the following recommendation: “We strongly urge schools to have a plan for dealing with crisis, including crisis such as school shootings (including lockdowns), suicides, and major accidents, as well as large-scale disasters (including natural disasters), such as the events of September 11, that have significant impact on schools throughout the country… Schools that do not have a school safety plan should implement a plan immediately.”
Teachers, administrators, school support staff, and classroom volunteers, are the first responders during any emergency which occurs in our schools, but are they prepared? As I researched I discovered that over a three month period there was a minimum of three school lockdowns every day somewhere in the United States. I was amazed at the places where these were happening, from small rural schools, to large inner city schools and in every state. I also discovered that in my own community the Department of Homeland Security was informing local police departments that a terrorist attack on small schools was a real possibility.
Having been involved in a school lockdown myself, I know how frightening they can be. In my case there was a gunman on the loose after he had shot someone in an apartment complex a block from the school. I was in the counseling office between class assignments and there was plenty of food and water – but no restroom. Immediately I thought of my son, and realized he was in band. Hallelujah! There was a restroom in the music building. As we waited for several hours, parents began arriving to pick up their high school students. There was no plan in place, so we watched as parents and their younger children walked around outside the school while we were in lockdown and there was a gunman close by. There was no plan beyond locking the students in.
So what can you do? First, determine what disasters might threaten the schools your children attend. Should the schools be prepared for earthquakes, flash floods, wildfires, or loss of power during winter conditions? All schools should be preparing for terrorist attacks, lockdowns and school fires.
Now you can help them prepare by asking some specific questions of your school principal and school board. If the questions have never been asked, the solutions are probably not in place.
Does your school have a written emergency plan? If so, ask for a copy and read it carefully to determine if it answers the following questions. If they don’t have one, it is time to get involved and help create a plan or improve upon the one already in place.
A good plan should include:
- A Crisis Management Team. This team should include administrators, teachers and classified staff members who all have specific assignments during an emergency. A clear chain of command should be in place and individual assignments and responsibilities should include:
- Safe evacuation.
- Notification of authorities.
- Notification of parents.
- Identification and confirmation of the location of every student.
- Medical assistance.
- Student needs such as sanitation, food, and water.
- Communication between all school employees.
- Parent and student reunification.
- A Communication Plan:
- How will the staff communicate with each other during a crisis?
- If the electricity is out, how will they communicate? Does the school have walkie-talkies, a public address system?
- What is the plan to notify the office if a child was out of the classroom when the emergency or lockdown occurred?
- How will the school notify parents? Is there a web notification plan in place? Will there be a taped phone message? Can this be delivered to more than one phone number? If the school will only notify you at one phone number and you have more than one child in the school, make their emergency phone numbers different, just in case you are away from your phone. One child could use your cell phone number and one your spouse’s cell or work number, or a grandparent’s number.
- How will the school notify students who are outside of the building in a PE class or at lunch that they need to return to the building?
- How and who will decide whether school should be dismissed early and how parents will be notified?
- Is there parent contact information available in the classroom as well as in the office?
- Have all school staff been trained in emergency first aid and CPR?
- Have staff been trained in evacuation and report procedures, and have they held practice drills?
- Have children been trained and drilled in the proper response to a likely emergency? In other words, if you live in earthquake country do they practice drop and cover? Do they know what to do in event of a lockdown, and has it been practiced?
- Have staff been trained how to reunite children with their parents or designated caregiver? When my daughter lived in North Carolina, children stood with their teacher every day at dismissal time until the teacher saw the parent or caregiver and then the child was allowed to leave.
- Is there similar staff training available for parent volunteers?
- How often does training occur?
- Security Procedures:
- How is visitor access monitored?
- How many doors are left unlocked with free access available during the school day?
- What security is in place for large gatherings such as athletic events and assemblies?
- Are there parking lots next to classrooms which are open to public parking? We have not experienced many car bombs at schools but they are a real possibility. Also, if it is only a few feet from a parked car to a place where students gather, how easy would it be for a child to be snatched? Parking next to a classroom should be eliminated or fenced off, locked, and available for staff parking only, whenever possible.
- How are students picked up after school? Are there staff members available to control traffic and observe adults picking up children?
- Has the staff been trained to recognize suspicious mail?
- Do students and staff know how to spot and report suspicious activity on and around school grounds?
- How often are security procedures reviewed?
- When will a school evacuation be ordered?
- Where is the student evacuation site? An evacuation site should be close enough for students to walk.
It should be free of barriers such as fences and streams. It should provide shelter if possible.
- Disaster Supplies:
- Does each classroom and office have the following supplies?
- Nonperishable food (such as energy bars with a 5-year shelf life – which will save money and time in the long run).
- Battery or crank radio, one with a siren is even better!
- First aid kit.
- Flashlight or glow sticks (I like glow sticks because you don’t have to worry about batteries).
- Mylar space blankets (can be used as blankets or have a slit cut in them for protection from the rain or snow. Yes, earthquakes and other disaster can happen when it is raining or snowing).
- Sanitation supplies including a port-a-potty, wet wipes, TP and biohazard bags. Last year a teacher was fired after a school lockdown for allowing his students to use a trash can as a potty. He had the students of the same sex surround the student using the facility, but he was later told this was unacceptable even though the school was in lockdown. He was told he should have called the office and someone would have come for the kids… What???How is that a lockdown? If there is enough danger for a lockdown to be issued at all, why would you usher kids from a classroom and put them in harm’s way, for any reason, except a life threatening illness or injury?
- Duct tape and sheeting – it’s great to cover windows if there is a threat on campus. Mylar blankets also work great to tape over windows for privacy or to keep rooms cool if the emergency happens in hot waether and power is out.
- Student attendance roll with contact information.
- Supplies should be contained in backpacks or buckets with handles so thy can easily be moved to an evacuation area.
- Does each classroom and office have the following supplies?
Now that you understand the needs which may be unmet in your schools, get involved and get busy. It should not be difficult to get school boards and community members involved in making sure classrooms are adequately supplied.
You may need to help supplement school or district budgets to accomplish your goals. Parents are usually more than happy to contribute a few dollars to make sure their children are protected. Some schools are now requiring either a personal preparedness kit or parents are assessed an amount to provide a classroom kit. Remind the community that even if students never use the supplies you have on hand, schools are often designated as shelters during a disaster and they will be invaluable at that time. We all know relief agencies have warned us to be prepared to be on our own for at least the first 72 hours, even in a shelter.
We can never protect our children from all emergencies, under all circumstances, but we need to make that our goal. We need to work to be as prepared as humanly possible. Whether in elementary school, high school, or college, our children deserve our most thoughtful efforts to see that they are protected and provided for in the event of a real emergency – which is proven to be possible in any neighborhood or community – even yours!