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Volume 31, Issue 1

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January 2004: Two students in Louisiana are arrested after planning to shoot students and teachers in an effort to copy the 1999 Columbine High School killing spree in Colorado.

October 2003: A gun-wielding teen takes an administrator hostage in a Sacramento, Calif. alternative school. Both are wounded in a confrontation with local police.

September 2001: Seven schools within blocks of the World Trade Center are showered with dust and debris when terrorists crashed planes into the twin towers. Administrators and teachers scramble to protect students and evacuate them to safety.

Though each of these tragedies involves a different crisis and a different level of trauma, they have a common denominator: a school setting. What was once thought of as a safe haven for children has become an institution vulnerable to a variety of attacks.
In the past 10 years, school violence incidents have skyrocketed around the nation. From highly publicized acts such as the Columbine shootings in 1999 to everyday incidents of stabbings and robberies, our nation’s schools are inundated with violent acts and potential crisis.
Serious school assaults have risen 240 percent between the years 2000 and 2003, reported the Kentucky Center for School Safety. In fact, preliminary statistics from an independent school safety consultant indicate 48 people died across the nation in school-related violence in the 2003-2004 school year.

Add in the threat of natural disasters, fires and abductions, and it is clear why school administrators across the nation are implementing comprehensive crisis and emergency response plans. With the lives of millions of students at stake, the task can be a daunting one.
Each weekday, nearly 53 million young people age 5 to 17 attend more than 117,000 public and private schools across the nation. In addition, some six million adults are employed as teachers and staff.

 

Coordinating crisis plans involving such a wide range of ages and abilities makes the planning especially difficult. Making it even trickier is the mobility involved – student bodies are constantly shuffling from one activity to the next. When a crisis strikes, the students and personnel could be in a variety of settings – a school cafeteria, a playground, on buses enroute to school or on a field trip.

How is the safety of students ensured when all the vulnerabilities are considered?
“There is a need to plan for crisis or emergencies of all types,” said John Nemeth, school business administrator for the Hopewell School District, located on the outskirts of Trenton, N.J. “You have to put the effort in to anticipate what could happen.”

Hopewell’s district includes six schools and an administration building, with 3,600 students in the district. Located just 50 miles from New York City, the district has dealt with both rural and urban crises, including the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist acts.

“It is a different society today. You have to be prepared for anything,” said Nemeth.
John Ciesla, superintendent for a rural school in Arkansas, agrees. “You never think it will happen at your school, but you have to think it could. The ‘what ifs’ are what you are always trying to plan for.”

Schools are especially vulnerable for potential terrorist attacks because of the set hours for times of use, the many access points, minimal security forces and storage of sensitive personal information, according to School Safety in the 21st Century, a paper published after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11.

In a survey conducted by the National Association of School Resource Officers in July 2003 more than 90 percent of the survey respondents indicated that schools are “soft targets” for potential terrorist attacks and more than 76 percent of the officers felt schools were not adequately prepared to respond to a terrorist attack on their school.

Given such grim statistics and shrinking budgets, school administrators are battling to implement crisis plans that encompass vulnerabilities unimaginable just a decade ago.

When Nemeth began in an administrative role 12 years ago, planning for a crisis was virtually unknown.
“We had a plan for weather emergencies, but not much else,” he explained. “Society has changed, so we’ve had to change with it. There are separated families, abductions, so many more threats today to our schools.”

School Safety in the 21st Century lists rural, urban and private schools as at-risk facilities, each with their own set of vulnerabilities. Rural schools may be further from emergency services and have fewer resources, while urban schools are susceptible to student violence and neighborhood crime. Private schools, dependant on tuition and endowments for funding, may have fewer resources for training and may be reluctant to share problems because of harm to the schools’ reputations.

However, each setting also has its benefits. The urban schools are able to pull from a variety of resources – including other schools in the district and nearby emergency personnel. The Hopewell School District credits the help of local police departments with spurring great progress in their contingency planning, said Nemeth.

“The police are very active in this process,” he said. “They are key planners for our committee. They give a lot of advice as far as what we need to prepare for and look for.”

Private schools can benefit from more flexibility in their plans. And rural schools can benefit from lower crime rates and close-knit communities.

Ciesla, an administrator at the school district in Lavaca, Ark. for three years, including a two-year term as high school principal, said approximately 850 students and 90 staff members are in the district.

“Being a small school definitely helps,” he said. “We can recognize when a student’s behavior has changed or another student can recognize it. That may not happen at a larger school where a student may not even know the name of the student sitting next to him.
Some schools are taking a proactive approach to curbing school violence by providing counseling and anti-bullying programs. The state of Arkansas was one of several across the country to implement a law requiring school districts to adopt policies to prevent student harassment.

“In many instances of school violence, the bullied child is the one that strikes back,” explained Ciesla. “This anti-bullying policy should go a long way toward solving that issue.”

In the school shootings that took place throughout the 1990s, the shooters were often those kids that had been harassed or felt inferior to other students. Recognizing warning signs is vital in preventing such violence, Ciesla said.

“The school shootings were really the turning point for many schools. It was such an eye-opener,” he said. “They spawned a lot of the regulations and crisis planning that we have now. It taught us all that we do need to be prepared.”

A comprehensive school crisis plan should include proactive plans for preventing violence, as well as plans for terrorist attacks, weather events, abductions, fires and a variety of other hazards.

The crisis plan at the Arkansas school contains a 13-point checklist for different incidents, including death of a student, suicide, bus accident and weather-related issues. The plan is revised on an annual basis and is communicated to staff, students and the community. All teachers have crisis response information posted in their classroom, which covers the actions needed when a crisis occurs. Crises are ranked on levels from one to nine, with different actions required for each level. For example, if a ‘level one’ crisis is announced, teachers are to remain in the classroom with students, close blinds, lock doors and ignore all bells. A ‘level four’ crisis indicates a fire. Teachers and students are to evacuate according to posted evacuation routes, which are tested monthly.

Having the plans classified in different levels is helpful in keeping staff and students calm, said Ciesla, who said the plan was formed by a cooperation of school districts and is used in many schools throughout the state.
“Having the guidelines allows you to make quick decisions,” he said. “It allows everyone to know exactly what to do in any situation. I can make an announcement that a ‘level one’ crisis has occurred, and our staff knows what to do. They all know they are doing the right things to protect the students.”

The Hopewell School District relies on annual plan revisions to stay up-to-date on potential threats. The plan is communicated to the parents through take-home emergency planning cards and a Web site.

The school has implemented strict rules for controlling access to buildings in an effort to cut down on potential attacks. Certain doors are locked throughout the day, a controlled entrance is equipped with video cameras and all visitors and staff must wear identification badges.
Despite the precautions, the unthinkable can still occur. School administrators were stunned on Sept. 11 when the terrorist attacks occurred. Even those located hundreds of miles from the disaster sites were affected.

“It was like a crisis that day in the school,” said Ciesla about his Arkansas school. “Parents were calling; kids wanted to go home. We had to decide whether to put the kids in an assembly to talk about the situation or proceed as normal.”
Because of their proximity to New York City, the Hopewell School District activated their crisis plan on 9/11. Nemeth recalls that day as being a significant situation for the school.

“That morning the kids were in school, many who had parents working in New York City,” he said, recalling the anxiety that surrounded that day. “We secured the buildings and dismissed kids only to parents who were able to pick them up. It was a very trying time.”
The Hopewell School District, like many others across the nation, accelerated their crisis planning following 9/11. The committee has concentrated on building security, communicating with staff and parents, and testing readiness and preparedness. Drills are conducted each year, which provide “an awful lot of information”, said Nemeth. “We have gotten so much better prepared thanks to the drills.”
While preparedness in schools is continuing to improve, achieving total protection is not likely, agree both Nemeth and Ciesla.

“There are always areas for improvement,” said Nemeth. “I can go home tonight and know that we have a good plan. But there are always variables that you can’t plan for.”

Ciesla agrees that factoring in the numerous scenarios is the most difficult part of crisis planning for schools.
“We’re ready for a crisis. But I can’t say we are ever totally ready. You have to factor in the different scenarios. We have our procedures to follow, but what if the variances changed? The guidelines are there, but they have got to be adapted to your particular situation at that time.

“There are so many things to consider when you are talking about children’s lives.”


Janette Ballman has served as an editor with Disaster Recovery journal since 1991. She has reported on numerous disasters and business continuity issues during that time. Ballman received a journalism degree from Mississippi University for Women in 1989.