September marks National Campus Safety Awareness Month (NCSAM), and over the next few weeks we will cover several important topics related to this national conversation on increasing safety across our campus communities.
Thanks to this congress-approved initiative and the ongoing efforts of millions of faculty and staff across the nation, the majority of our schools continue to provide a safe haven for learning. Unfortunately, that does not always safeguard a campus from a potentially devastating crisis.
In the wake of Hurricane Harvey, which has already been blamed for at least 47 deaths and 43,000 people being housed in shelters, the topic of crisis management reaches a new significance, especially for schools.
In Houston, Texas, just a week before classes were scheduled to begin, Harvey shutdown operations for schools across the region, including the Houston Independent School District—the state’s largest district and the nation’s fourth largest with 216,000 students enrolled.
In fact, the Texas Education Agency reports the total number of students impacted is closer to 1 million across 244 public and charter school districts statewide.
The lasting results of natural disasters like Harvey can be unpredictable and unprecedented. As with any crisis, the range in scope and intensity varies greatly and can take a toll on the entire community.
So how do you prepare for the unthinkable?
Every school needs a crisis plan and it needs to lead with a proactive approach that considers and addresses a range of events and hazards caused by both nature and people.
The list of scenarios is extensive and ever-evolving, and it includes natural disasters, severe weather, fires, hazardous material spills, shootings, bomb threats, medical emergencies, student and staff deaths, acts of terror or war and disease or infection outbreak.
The most important component of effective crisis planning begins at the top with school and local leadership. These individuals need to work together to champion your safety initiatives and lead with a best practices approach.
If you do not have a proper crisis plan in place, it is crucial that you work with your leadership team to develop one. There are a number of online resources available that can assist in this process, and they include:
- The Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Tool Box
- Extension Disaster Education Network Tool Box
- Federal Emergency Management Agency Multihazard Emergency Planning for Schools
If you do have a robust plan in place, it is time to review your policies, practice your procedures and update your strategies accordingly. This due diligence can help save lives, prevent injury and minimize property damage during an emergency situation.
Crisis plans need to be inclusive and all encompassing, and they should serve as an extension of the ongoing efforts of schools and the local community to create safer learning environments.
Your plan should also support and reinforce strong and open channels of communication. Relationships need to be developed and maintained between your school, district and local community well before a crisis occurs. That way you have a strong network of emergency responders who are familiar with your school and its campus.
It’s also important to think beyond the campus and build relationships with city emergency officials, public works officials and health and mental health professionals. In addition, it’s a good idea to work with local news agencies so they understand how your district and schools will respond in a crisis—they can also help share emergency communications.
Ultimately, faculty and staff need to be equipped and ready to help their students maneuver through a crisis situation.
Though it takes some proactive effort to ensure you have the right information, process and procedures in place to deal with whatever emergency you may face, it’s paramount toward ensuring that everyone has a chance to get home safely and unharmed.