Ensuring Post 9-11 Safety at Your Child's School
"In the event that the terrorist alert moves from code orange to code red, schools will be in session."
Had it really come to this, an elementary school newsletter, breaking from its traditional announcements of student accomplishments and teacher notices to address the latest developments in school security? As I read over my kindergartener's April newsletter with a bit more interest, I realized it certainly had come to this – all over the United States.
Robyn Zeiders lives in a small Northwest Pennsylvania town, far from the New York City likelihood of ever experiencing terrorism firsthand, but even her son's small private school has updated its disaster policy to include much more than tornado and fire drills.
What's Going On?
In early March the U.S. Department of Education along with the Office of Homeland Security announced a new section on the U.S. Department of Education's Web site. The new section exists to help school officials plan for any emergency, including natural disasters, violent incidents and terrorist acts.
"I saw a news story about the police departments, fire departments and other organizations getting together with the local school officials to develop the new school security plan and put it into action," Zeiders says. "It was a little overwhelming – scary even."
Preparing for the Worst
As I read over that newsletter, I felt a pit in my stomach. My first reaction was fear – home-schooling was looking better and better. My next reaction was curiosity: How were my local public safety officials going to keep my child safe?
According to Emergency Planning for America's Schools, your school district should be doing the following:
- Conduct an assessment of each school building. Identify those factors that put the building, students and staff at greater risk, such as proximity to rail tracks that regularly transport hazardous materials or facilities that produce highly toxic material or propane gas tanks, and develop a plan for reducing the risk. This can include plans to evacuate students away from these areas in times of crisis and to reposition propane tanks or other hazardous materials away from school buildings.
- Work with businesses and factories in close proximity to the school to ensure that the school's crisis plan is coordinated with their crisis plans.
- Ensure a process is in place for controlling access and egress to the school. Require all persons who do not have authority to be in the school to sign in.
- Review traffic patterns and where possible, keep cars, buses and trucks away from school buildings.
- Review landscaping, and ensure buildings are not obscured by overgrowth of bushes or shrubs where contraband can be placed or persons can hide.
- Have site plans for each school facility readily available and ensure they are shared with first responders and agencies responsible for emergency preparedness.
- Ensure there are multiple evacuation routes and rallying points. Your first or second evacuation site options may be blocked or unavailable at the time of the crisis.
- Practice responding to crisis on a regular basis.
- Ensure a process is established for communicating during a crisis.
- Inspect equipment to ensure it operates during crisis situations.
- Have a plan for discharging students. Remember that during a crisis many parents and guardians may not be able to get to the school to pick up their child. Make sure every student has a secondary contact person and contact information readily available.
- Have a plan for communicating information to parents and for quelling rumors. Cultivate relationships with the media ahead of time, and identify a public information officer to communicate with the media and the community during a crisis.
- Work with law enforcement officials and emergency preparedness agencies on a strategy for sharing key parts of the school crisis plans.
- Develop a command structure for responding to a crisis. The roles and responsibilities for educators, law enforcement and fire officials and other first responders in responding to different types of crisis need to be developed, reviewed and approved.
- Return to the business of teaching and learning as soon as possible.
- Identify and approve a team of credentialed mental health workers to provide mental health services to faculty and students after a crisis. Understand that recovery takes place over time and that the services of this team may be needed over an extended time period.
- Ensure the team is adequately trained.
- The plan needs to include notification of parents on actions that the school intends to take to help students recover from the crisis.
It's certainly a mouthful and enough to keep the school administrators and public officials plenty busy. In the meantime, it might leave parents wondering how all this attention and activity surrounding terrorism and schools might be affecting the kids.
The Impact on Children
"I don't think my son is old enough to understand what's going on," says Zeiders. "I ask about it, and I'm always willing to answer questions, but he truly doesn't seem bothered."
Marie Harris'* son is much older, and he's perfectly able to comprehend the magnitude of filing into the hallways and keeping away from doors and windows. "It doesn't really bother me," says 13-year-old Anthony*, whose Orlando, Fla., middle school holds about 1000 students. "It's no big deal."
And my son? The newest push for school security hasn't affected him nearly as much as it has affected me. To him tornado drills, fire drills, security cameras and locked doors are as much a part of kindergarten as story time and snack.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy.