Are Schools and Communities Serious about Student Safety?

Are Schools and Communities Serious about Student Safety?

Providing safe schools for students and staff should be a high priority for all educational institutions. Creating an environment where students are free of fear lends itself to academic excellence in the classroom. So why are states so complacent in mandating emergency plans for schools?  While states like Indiana, Virginia and Colorado are leaders in school safety, others seem to be waiting for a reason to upgrade their security procedures. The facts remain that there is a great deal of denial and disagreement related to the steps involved in providing safe schools.

Due to the disparity among our states and local school districts, it is important to identify basic components in providing a safe and secure environment. According to a recent federal survey of 50 states, only 15 required a district plan for an active shooter emergency and 19 required an individual school plan. Often finances are the top priority and an inability to gain parental and community support for facility improvements keep the plan from moving forward.

Where to Begin

School facility assessments are a great place to start. Assessments can be completed with community support in the areas of facilities improvements. They can also identify access control needs and training that is mandatory in providing a safe and secure school. While these components in no way represent all areas of a complete school safety program, they represent several layers of security and basic components each school must evaluate.

The review of a school facility using Crime Prevention through Environmental Design (CPTED) can enhance the feeling of safety and encourage safe schools. General evaluations include perimeter fencing, security lights and clear vision at entrances as well as cleaning up the landscape and creating enhanced visibility for all.

As with any secure facility, access control is paramount; controlling exterior door access is mission critical for schools. Access to unauthorized areas translates to unwanted fear and anxiety on the part of students and staff. This can be accomplished by mechanical methods as well as electronic access controls. While the mechanical lock and key solution may be adequate and effective, it requires constant surveillance by staff and administration. Retro fitting legacy buildings can be costly but this is a huge upside to providing safe schools. Many electronic access control systems incorporate and integrate digital video management systems as well. The ability to display all door access points as a visual interface in the offices allows for immediate response to open doors. Each door, fire exit, roof hatch, or internal gate can be monitored with electronic access controls.

The Federal Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools-Technical Assistance Center (REMS) published the “Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans.” The plan insists that local police, fire and security experts are available to assist in the event of an emergency. These partnerships are the key to school safety. In addition to expert partnerships, the community can provide insights into your neighborhood school safety concerns.

Educating Students and Teachers

Training for staff and students to respond effectively to an emergency is critical. The response to these emergencies has experts differing in opinions. A Report to Congressional Requesters from the United States Government Accountability Office (GAO) “Emergency Management-Improved Federal Coordination could better assist K-12 Schools Prepare for Emergencies” recommends that Education convene its federal interagency partners to develop a strategic approach to interagency collaboration on school emergency preparedness, consistent with leading practices.

Of 51 state educational agencies surveyed, 32 states reported they require school districts to have emergency plans and 34 reported they require schools to have plans. Interesting to note, nearly all states reported providing training, technical support or guidance in the development of emergency plans. An excellent federal resource can be found on the REMS website: Emergency Management Virtual Toolkit.

While the states indicate the training is available, it is up to the local police, fire and EMS response services to implement interagency training. Schools assume police, fire and EMS work and train together in the best interest of all. While we are making progress, interoperability remains an issue on both the federal, state and local level.

Coordinating Law Enforcement

Currently, training is taking place to break down the barriers between police, fire and EMS tactics in an active shooter environment. This training involves interagency training and developing a Rescue Task Force (RTF) on the local level. The RTF is comprised of a group of police officers and firefighters and/or paramedics with the objective of entering the Warm Zone to rapidly treat and transport patients to receive medical services as quickly as possible. Schools encourage Rescue Task Force Training when responding to emergencies. However, there is work to be done in this area.

“By far the biggest obstacle so far has been coordinating with law enforcement,” Fire Department official Brian Kazmierzak said. “The rescue task force concept as well as incident command is something that the police are not familiar with. Police officers usually operate alone and differently than the company concept that firefighters operate in.”

Typically, in an emergency event, the fire department will allow the police to secure a scene before they enter. However in the Rescue Task Force Model, the fire department and paramedics have to enter with police protection in order to get to and treat victims as soon as possible.

“The fire departments, police departments, EMS community, Medical Directors, and educational facilities must be on the same page,” Kazmierzak said. “The RTF concept is all about working together and being on the same page the minute the 9-1-1 call is received. Everyone has to be able to work under a unified command system, work in a common communication system and work on common policies and practices that are tested through training and drills.”

While this type of training is critical to saving lives, schools must ensure their communication protocols are immediate and clear. Referred to as Active Shooter Training, the response to an emergency can help safeguard staff and student. For example, a decrease in lockdown time can save lives. According the federal guide, they offer three basic options to an active shooter situation – RUN, HIDE, FIGHT. The GAO report indicates agencies that collaborate offer different interpretations of the same federal guidance. The fact remains that there are a number of other options in training for active shooter incidents including A.L.I.C.E (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate),  A.D.D (Avoid, Deny, Defend) and others.

The breakdown of these training methods should include selecting the one that best fits your staff and student population. Train regularly and ensure that all staff has the ability to initiate a lockdown in a crisis situation. Technology enhanced our ability to decrease lockdown times but it is up to our schools to initiate and communicate effectively with our local first responders. Working as a team to prevent tragedy within your own community is the first place to start building safe schools. Schools need your support to ensure the safety of all.

Posted by Mike Seger on Aug 16, 2016

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