Making a school safety plan for the ‘most likely’ threats

Most schools have adopted emergency plans to respond to active shooter events. But in a new book, Amanda Klinger reports that these plans often don’t address more likely situations such as severe weather, chemical spills or health crises.

Most schools have adopted emergency plans to respond to active shooter events. But Amanda Klinger says these plans often don’t address more likely situations such as severe weather, chemical spills or health crises.

In their book, Keeping Students Safe Every Day (ASCD, 2018), Klinger and her coauthor and mother, Amy Klinger, spell out the key elements of a living emergency plan that address unique circumstances at individual schools.

They also demonstrate how lockdown drills can become a learning experience for students who, properly engaged in the exercise, are less likely to panic and become frightened in a real emergency.

“Often after a crisis, there is a knee-jerk response in buying a product or service that may make you feel safer in the moment, but doesn’t address underlying problems,” says Klinger. “Instead, we should be investing in our people, with proper response training for both faculty and students.”

What is the “normalcy bias” when it comes to safety?

Basically, we process information so rapidly that most of the time there isn’t actually danger, there isn’t actually a threat, so our minds have a tendency to say, “Oh, well that can’t be happening. That’s probably not what I thought it was; I’m sure everything is fine.” We have to get past that normalcy bias. We have to get people to respond appropriately first, and then say, “Oh, OK, it was a false alarm.”

You say that many schools have a false sense of security with active shooter events. They have an “it can’t happen here” attitude.

In a school, that’s really problematic. On the one hand, it probably won’t happen. Any given school in America, statistically speaking, probably won’t have an active shooter event, but it will have a crisis event, properly defined. Every 1.8 years, a school has a crisis event. We need to move beyond the idea that active shooter response is the only type of safety that we need to be concerned with because, frankly, it’s among the least of the things we need to worry about.

In your chapter on lockdowns, you say there should be different levels requiring different responses.

A full lockdown isn’t actually an effective response for many things other than an active shooter.

We advocate for a leveled lockdown approach. A level one lockdown might be because we’ve got a noncustodial parent in the third-grade hallway. That gives me the information that I need to respond appropriately. We’re not going to die today and no one needs to be weeping, but we’re going to lock the doors and take attendance and proceed with our class. If the custody issue concerns a student in my class, then we’ll get out of sight and be ready if the situation escalates.

The critical piece there is providing information to teachers. Otherwise, you’re going to have kids locked in classrooms wondering whether they are going to die. You can imagine the panic with people texting their parents.

I’m concerned that in the wake of the Parkland, Florida, shooting, the No. 1 approach has been security interventions—“Let’s have more cameras, let’s have panic buttons, let’s have metal detectors, let’s have more cops in schools.”

None of those things engage educators in the process. That’s abdicating this work to someone else. We see an incredible willingness of educators to tackle this work, but if the approach is law enforcement interventions, then you are removing educators from the process.

Along those lines, you say a lockdown drill can be a learning experience that gets students involved as well.

Yes, and I hear all the time: “The kids are really upset in our lockdown drills. What do we tell them afterward so they’re not upset?”

Well, you need to rethink the way that you’re doing your drill. When I teach kids multiplication, no one is really upset afterward because I’m teaching them the skill of multiplication. It’s the same with this.

I understand that we need to be sensitive and that you’ll have kids who are going to respond differently than other kids. But when we’re talking about safety stuff, we’re talking about skills, and when we talk about and practice those skills, there is no reason for people to be so upset. And if people are upset? It probably means that we are doing something wrong in the way that we’re approaching it.

You write about an associate who walked around a school unchallenged in the halls, library and cafeteria, and even took a selfie in the principal’s office.

To be clear, people ask us to do assessments like that. The administrative staff knows what’s happening. But when people see her, they say, “Well, it’s probably OK.” It’s that normalcy bias. People are hesitant to engage with visitors because they think they’ll have to tackle them or something. Better yet, they can just say, “Hi. Good morning. Where are you headed? I see you don’t have a visitor badge. Come with me, and we’ll get you one.”

We need to have that conversation with teachers. Every time we talk about that in a training, educators are incredibly willing to do it because they understand why, they understand how, and they understand that it’s something they are empowered and expected to do.

But if our only school safety training is a law enforcement official talking about how to fight a gunman, you don’t get to those other critical skills.

I remember after one shooting event, classrooms were encouraged to keep bags of canned goods or rocks for students to throw at an intruder.

The problem with training like that is we are sending the message to our students, and to our teachers, that this is an unsafe place and we have to be so vigilant about throwing soup cans or whatever ridiculous things we’re doing.

Instead, we want kids to have skills. If I’m training rapid evacuation with kindergartners, I say, “Hey folks, sometimes we may need to leave this room in a hurry. How could we leave this room quickly and be sure no one gets left behind and no one gets hurt?”

I’m focusing the training around a skill. If the roof blows off, we need to run away; if there is a shooter, we might need to run away. Focusing on safety skill building is a very important distinction. Remember “stop, drop and roll”? That’s a safety skill. It’s not, “Holy cow! You might burn to death!” No, we focus on the skill part.

The book has an extensive section on emergency operations plans—how to create one, how to maintain it and how to make it a living document.

It is a long-term process and there’s long-term gain.

But when parents are pounding on the desk, it’s hard to say, “OK, we’re going to form a planning team, and we’re going to examine this issue, and we’re going to examine our risks, and we’re going to examine what we can do, and we’re going to come up with a plan in a year.” That is not the way you appease the folks who are pounding on the table.

That is when you start to see compliance but not engagement. Not every state requires plans, but in states that do, they require very specific things that sometimes make sense and sometimes don’t.

And we see it all the time: emergency operations plans that are literally cut and pasted from the neighboring school district—and they forget to change the name of the superintendent. How useful is that document?

What’s the first step for district leaders and administrators in creating a plan?

Really think critically about your likely risks. What are you doing to mitigate them? We do vulnerability assessments for school districts to help them in that process—looking at things with a fresh set of eyes.

It’s not a security assessment. It’s not what’s locked and what’s not. We want to know what are the procedures and the policies they have in place. What is supposed to happen? Are those things really being done? What’s happening in a holistic way with climate and culture, with supervision, with dismissal, and with all these different things? What can you do about it? And then you get to work. 

Tim Goral is senior editor.

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