|Title||Crisis Management in Christian Schools|
|Preview||In order to be effective, emergency plans must be comprehensive in scope but simple in implementation.|
A student hurriedly comes to your door and announces, "There's a strange man talking to some kid near the art room." What is your next step? Do you call the police? Do you walk through the building and approach the man? Do you initiate a lockdown? Would the staff at your school know what to do? Would the students?
Perhaps you're facing an even scarier possibility: A parent asks to see your school's emergency preparedness plan. Does your school have one? If so, do you know where the plan is? Is it up-to-date?
As educators, we have been entrusted with the academic lives of our students. As Christian educators, we have the additional privilege of nurturing our students' spiritual lives. First and foremost in our duties, however, is the physical protection of the young lives under our care. Even though our understanding of the sovereignty of God reassures us that, ultimately, we are not able to protect anything fully, we are not off the hook. Note the psalmist's words: "Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchmen stand guard in vain" (Psalm 127:1, NIV). Our Lord is the one who keeps us safe, but He still expects there to be watchmen! Too often, with too much to do and not enough time, personnel, and resources to do it, Christian schools allow the urgent to push aside the important. After all, is there really time to outline what to do in the event of a tornado? There must be.
A Wake-Up Call
School crises have become a part of our national consciousness, but although most Christian schools have at least a state-required emergency plan on paper, for many, its brevity, outdated information, or general lack of use reveals a dangerous that-would-never-happen-here mentality. For those schools that have taken the danger seriously, some have gone to the other extreme, producing emergency binders so thick and plans so elaborate and detailed that they too are ineffective.
A Healthy Balance
In order to be effective, emergency plans must be comprehensive in scope but simple in implementation. Schools need to update them regularly, practice them often, and post them so that the plans are conspicuous.
Keep It Simple
The emergency plan must be broad enough to include hundreds of potential crisis situations yet simple enough to be easily remembered during the tension and fog of a real crisis. So how does a school create and then simplify a plan that needs to address everything from bees to bombs, from guns to gasoline spills, from power outages to panicked parents? For one thing, a school does not try to reinvent the wheel. Instead, the school uses and adapts the many free professional resources already available. Once a school has developed a solid core plan, the school revises it again, this time for simplicity. First, the school considers who is involved. In any school crisis, there are five main groups to consider: the students, the staff, the emergency responders, the parents, and the community. Next, the school divides the plan into three stages: before the crisis, during it, and after it. The U.S. Department of Education follows this reasoning when it divides its model emergency plan into four stages: prevention, preparedness, response, and recovery (www.ed.gov/ admins/lead/safety/crisisplanning.html).
Before. First, instruct students about the basics of the emergency plan, either by conducting assemblies or by having teachers go through a common, prepared checklist in their individual classes. Assure students that the school is safe, that it has a strong emergency plan in place, that God is in control (Joshua 1:9), and that they do not need to worry or be afraid even though they need to take emergency matters seriously. As teachers and students pray daily for the school, remind them to thank God for the safety He has provided in the past and for His continued protection in the future.
Next, practice the plan often. During the first day or two of a new school year, begin practicing various responses. Even though most states require at least a monthly fire drill, practice various other scenarios, under different conditions and at different times of the day. For example, block the main exit to see whether students and staff know secondary exits. Arrange in advance for an older student to hide in the bathroom during the drill to see how long it takes staff to notice he's missing and then how long it takes to find him. Practice an evacuation during unconventional times such as lunch, recess, or a break between classes. Plan a drill for a time when the principal is away to see if the emergency command structure is clear.
During. Although there are thousands of possible emergency scenarios, there are really only three main responses for students during an emergency: evacuation, group assembly, and classroom assembly, usually called lockdown. Evacuation, the most common emergency response, is appropriate for any situation in which students need to leave the building, assemble, and be accounted for. Examples include a fire, an explosion, an indoor chemical spill, and a bomb threat. A school would use group assembly when students need to assemble, be accounted for, but not leave the building. Examples are an imminent natural disaster, a chemical or biological attack, and dangerous people or police activity outside the building. Finally, a school would use a lockdown when its students need to be accounted for but do not need to assemble or leave the building. An intruder in the building or medical personnel attending someone in the hallways are examples of what would initiate this response.
For all three of these responses, a critical though often overlooked step is the roll call. Decidedly different from simply a "head count," the roll call involves noting exactly which students are present and which are not. In a roll call, teachers need a list of the students they are responsible for and a means of communicating with the person coordinating the central list of all people in the building. This central list includes a list of students absent that day, students or athletes who have left for a school event or game, visitors to the building, and nonteaching staff. When the building is burning, "I think everyone got out" will not work.
As part of the evacuation or assembly planning, a school designates appropriate staging areas. Evacuation areas need to be a safe distance from the building and also clear of emergency traffic routes. The school also has a secondary staging area, one that is sheltered from the weather and able to accommodate the school population for an extended time should the emergency warrant it. Typically, surrounding businesses or other nearby schools are willing to establish "emergency partnerships."
After. Following any drill, thank the students for their response and encourage them to keep up the good work. A great way to close any drill is to pray, thanking God that it was only a drill. Following an actual crisis, debrief students about what happened and provide them with the opportunity to pray, to talk about their feelings, and to receive biblical counsel.
Before. Each year's in-service training should include a review of the key elements of the school's emergency plan and even a drill. Remember, the staff will be the ones directly controlling the students through an emergency. If the staff are unclear about the plan and their specific role in it, that confusion will be magnified among the student body.
During. Make sure the staff remain calm. That may seem obvious, but once teachers realize that an emergency is not a drill, some may exude an air of panic. Staff should walk quickly, but unless absolutely necessary, they should not run. Students, who will respond to the emotions of the adults, need to see that those in charge are in control.
After. As soon as possible following a crisis and even following drills, staff debriefing needs to take place. Make sure the staff have an opportunity to ask questions and to share their perceptions of the strengths and the weaknesses of the emergency plan. If things went smoothly, highlight the reasons. If something went wrong, address it, focusing on how to correct the problem in the future, rather than on who was to blame. Remind the staff to direct all parent and media questions and concerns to the school's designated public relations coordinator. Finally, following a significant crisis, the staff will be integral in the long-term healing process as well as the short-term need to resume a normal school routine as soon as possible. While not ignoring the crisis or the feelings it may have evoked, the school needs to avoid dwelling on it unnecessarily.
The Emergency Responders
Before. Establish contacts among the fire, police, and medical responders in the community. Be sure to have up-to-date names and phone numbers. Provide emergency crews with blueprints of the facility, and make sure the blueprints are in the emergency kit.
During. Staff should be available to emergency personnel if needed but should not interfere with their work. Make sure staff members are keeping the students under control and away from the crisis.
After. Ask the professionals for feedback, including ways to improve the school's response. Have the students compose and send notes of appreciation, maybe even some baked goodies, especially for false alarms. Set the example for students by respecting and appreciating those who risk their lives to serve as emergency personnel.
Before. Parents need to feel safe about their children's time at school. When a school talks openly and often about issues of safety, the school establishes parental confidence in school personnel and alleviates fears. Make the school's crisis plan available to parents.
During. Unfortunately, during an emergency, the students may be far more calm than the grown-ups. Part of the emergency plan needs to include how to release students safely and in an orderly manner to their parents' custody. The plan also needs to address the possibility that in some rare cases, releasing the students may not be possible right away. Remember, an accurate roll call is absolutely necessary, regardless of how panicked or irate a parent might be.
After. Make sure that parents receive a debriefing as soon as possible. A letter drafted by the school's public relations coordinator and sent home with students is a sufficient start. Depending on the scope of the event, you may need to provide additional information sessions and may even want to coordinate biblical counseling.
Before. At the beginning of each year, be sure to have an annually updated network of local pastors and professional Christian counselors in place to help students following a crisis. In the event of a major crisis involving the facility, the death or suicide of a student or a teacher, a national tragedy, or a heightened terrorist threat, students will be looking for godly counsel, and the level of counsel needed may be beyond the training and expertise of the faculty.
During and after. While not denying the media access to information, make sure your school is careful to speak with a unified voice. Never tell teachers and students that they cannot talk to the media, but do emphasize that the teachers and the students need to realize the power of their words. Encourage directing all inquiries to the school's official spokesperson.
Clear communication can make the difference between a well-executed response plan and chaos. Establish common terminology. Be sure to have at least the basic communication tools for a crisis: whistles, a megaphone with fresh batteries, and a cell phone to back up the regular phone lines. If the school budget allows, consider having additional tools such as two-way radios and public address systems.
The ultimate irony of crisis management is that even though a school prioritizes, prepares for, and practices emergency responses, the many hours that the school should spend on these steps are all going toward practicing something that, God willing, the school will never use. If a sports team only practices and never plays, it is a waste of time; if a school crisis team only practices, it is a blessing from God!
Helpful Resources for Schools
• U. S. Department of Education: www.ed.gov/admins/ lead/safety/crisisplanning.html
• Federal Emergency Management Agency: www.fema.gov
• Safe Schools: www.asafeschool.com
• Department of Homeland Security: www.dhs.gov
• American Red Cross: www.redcross.org
• American Association of School Administrators: www. aasa.org/edissues/content.cfm?ItemNumber=972
• National School Safety Center: www.nssc1.org
Jonathan Nazigian, MS, serves as an administrator at The King's Christian School in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, where his duties include crisis management. Readers may reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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