Crisis Management: The Question is not If, But When . . .

Most people would agree that public schools reflect the communities they serve. As such, schools are a microcosm of everything happening in society. Sociologists remind us that we are completing a transition from the industrial age to the technical/information age. Usually, societal changes bring about new challenges and increased stress on the people experiencing them.

This additional stress affects not only people, but also organizations and resources. The source of the stress ranges from minor irritants and inconveniences to dramatic crises.

We all have witnessed the widely publicized crises where children have become casualties at school. Somewhere lost in this media frenzy is the fact that schools are still the safest environment for children. All school people I know take very seriously the responsibility of creating a safe school environment. They employ all their skills, resources and knowledge to provide a sanctuary for children where these irritations and inconveniences do not fester into crises.

However, we must not lose sight of the fact that we can and must take additional steps to make schools even safer.

Be Prepared The potential for a school crisis exists every day classes are in session. A few may still believe that these traumatic events will never happen in their schools. But for school personnel, the real question is not "Will an emergency happen in my school?"-but "When the emergency occurs, how prepared will we be to handle the situation?"

We in education are diligent in fulfilling our duty of care to students under everyday circumstances. We also must become trained and ready to carry out crisis response plans for students and staff during emergency scenarios.

Many educators believe that when an emergency arises, a 911 phone call is all that is required to handle the situation. Educators now are correctly asking themselves: What is our duty of care until the emergency responders arrive? And what is our duty of care after they arrive? We also must ask ourselves how prepared we will be if the emergency responders cannot get to us immediately.

Our county emergency-management department has instructed us to prepare for crises as if their personnel could not respond to our needs for up to 72 hours. They are not implying that schools would not be a priority on the list of response locations; they simply are asking us to acquire some self-sufficiency.

Focusing Resources Society expects schools to provide a safe place for its children. In trying to meet this expectation, schools increasingly are faced with handling emergency situations for which they have received little if any formal training.

So, where does one start to prepare an educational organization and educators to take on yet another role? The immensity of this task is daunting to educators who are already juggling many other tasks. And little or no additional funding is available to incorporate these new responsibilities.

Over the past nine years, the school district where I serve has focused on providing our schools and staff with the knowledge, skills and resources needed to handle emergency situations until the professional response community can arrive.

The first step is to construct a comprehensive multihazard school emergency-response plan. Our plan is organized into three major categories of events: people crises, natural disasters and physical plant/technology hazards.

This plan will always be a work in progress, continually evolving as society changes. For example, this year we have added response plans for anthrax threats and emergency early dismissal of school.

Response Team For a plan to become operational, you must have a team trained in response techniques and provided with the resources specified in the plan. Our district crisis-management team consists of about 30 people from all levels of our organization, local fire, police, and emergency medical services personnel, and county emergency-management officials. We meet monthly to review the plan, to train and to critique our response to recent school emergencies.

Our district is a fairly large organization (20,000 students and 3,000 staff) in a suburban area. But the benefits of composing your district team in a similar fashion will work regardless of school size or setting. It is reassuring to be on a first-name basis with members of the professional response community when they show up on your doorstep.

In addition to the districtwide team, each school building has its own crisis team, usually consisting of five to nine members. Typical team members include a building administrator, nurse, counselor, custodian and others who have particular interest or expertise in helping.

The district and building teams work together during planning, training and responses to crises. This cooperation provides an incredible strength to our crisis plans.

Leading The Way Designate a team leader for the crisis plan. We refer to our team leader as the district's emergency manager or incident commander. It is the emergency manager's responsibility to coordinate all resources of the plan during a crisis.

In future columns, a variety of crisis-management issues will be discussed, including specific roles, responsibilities, training techniques and resources that will assist educational organizations in developing their own comprehensive multihazard school crisis plans.

Olathe Unified School District 233 has developed a comprehensive school emergency-management plan, which details three major categories of events that occur in school settings: people crises, natural disasters and physical plant/technology hazards. A copy of the plan is available for a nominal printing fee by calling Bob Hull at (913)780-7000.

The process of handling emergency and crisis situations can seem endless. However, with steps in place, the task can be easier:

-Construct a comprehensive multi-hazard school emergency response plan. This will change as society changes. Things will be added and deleted. Break down categories of events, such as people crises, natural disasters and physical-plant/technology hazards.

-Train a team in response techniques and provide them with the resources specified in the plan. Draw members from all levels of the school organization, as well as local fire, police and emergency medical services personnel.

-Designate a team leader for the crisis plan. This trained emergency manager or incident commander should coordinate all resources of the plan during a crisis situation.

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