In the past, schools were responsible for educating students; today, they are also responsible for physically protecting students. People have traditionally worked hard to send their children to the BEST school but no one has ever really thought about sending their children to the SAFEST school. When faced with natural disasters, health-related pandemics, random shootings and a wide range of other risks, it is critical that more time and attention be spent considering better policies and procedures for safety, security and emergency preparedness. Across the country, educational institutions from local school boards to major universities are wrestling with how to develop stronger and more resilient organizations. As emergency programs are initiated and enhanced, each organization moves closer to the ideal of The Perfect School.

Across the country, educational institutions from local school boards to major universities are wrestling with how to develop stronger and more resilient organizations.

However this progress is always being balanced against the requirements for the primary function of education. Competing priorities will always be part of this equation. It is vitally important that emergency preparedness be considered as day-to-day operational decisions are being made.

  • Do we want our school to be physically open with freedom of movement, or locked down with fences and bars and barriers?
  • Should teachers attend continuing education to become better teachers or emergency planning workshops to become safer teachers? Can we compensate them for this additional time?
  • Is it more important to hire more teachers for better education or more security guards for safer facilities?
  • Should limited financial resources be allocated away from educational programs to fund emergency preparedness programs?

These are VERY difficult questions for any administrator, principal or elected official to deal with. These are real world issues that need real world solutions and there are no easy answers. We want our schools to have playgrounds and windows and children laughing, but security demands fences and locks and rules. The Perfect School has to balance all of these considerations.

Geographic Location

The most obvious place to start our Perfect School is at the beginning — with the location of the campus. But this luxury is only available for new construction and often the choices are limited by budget and other factors. Most schools were built decades before and have had to adapt to the changing demographics around them. The location will determine a number of the risks.

  • Regional and localized natural hazards such as hurricanes, earthquakes, flooding and tornadoes
  • Differences between urban, suburban and rural schools due to demographics, population density and economics.
  • Proximity to railways, major streets and nearby businesses with hazardous materials or other threats.

Construction and Physical Security

Beyond the actual locations of the school, the design and construction of the facilities have a huge bearing on the safety and security of students. Again, most existing schools were designed for education and NOT for security so there are always significant pre-existing constraints. Schools include classrooms, offices, laboratories, cafeterias, sports-related facilities and many other types of spaces that are important for the overall mission. Combining these spaces together, allowing students to move freely, and yet maintaining a secure and safe environment is a tricky task for an architect with a blank sheet of paper. It is much harder for principals, security officers and facilities managers with existing buildings and limited budgets. Building design and constructions should consider the following elements for enhanced safety and security.

  • Review potential hazards during the design phase and build structures to mitigate future damages. This is especially important with construction in high-risk regions for earthquakes, tornados and hurricanes.
  • Barriers and physical measures including walls, fencing, secure windows and lockable doors. These need to be unobtrusive and yet effective for preventing and controlling access.
  • Controlled entry for people and deliveries for the entire facility including but not limited to the cafeteria and the supply of food products, and any hazardous materials on campus.
  • Successful use of technologies for surveillance, communications and access control. The effective use of cameras and notification tools among others can bring enhanced security without significant manpower.

Planning, Training and Exercising

There are many different aspects that must be considered for the Perfect School in terms of emergency preparedness. In most cases, the location and the construction are pre-determined and leave few or no real options for significant change. Therefore, the most important asset of an institution’s preparedness program will be their people — the teachers and facility managers and administrators and bus drivers. These are the people who will be around the students when the crisis begins and these are the people who will be most involved in the response and recovery. The best thing that any school can do to protect their students is to engage their staff in the development and maintenance of useable, real-world emergency plans. Executive management must lead from the front and encourage staff at all levels to participate in planning sessions and in various types of emergency exercises. The best building in the best location with the best technology will still only be as good as the people who work in the building!

All professional emergency managers and security professionals will tell you that a successful response depends on good pre-planning and continual practice. Schools must follow these established best practices and build the internal capacity to be ready for a wide range of risks and hazards.

  • Develop an emergency team with members from administration, teaching, facilities, food services and other departments and divisions.
  • Review planning guidance for educational institutions and begin developing action-oriented planning elements.
  • Train staff and students regularly on their responsibilities and actions for certain circumstances.
  • Schedule and facilitate exercises, tests and drills regularly throughout the year and include staff from all levels, as well as students when appropriate.
  • Sustain an ongoing program for plan maintenance over time. This should include regular training for new staff, refresher training for current staff and plan development sessions for the enhancement of critical elements.

Building a Culture of Preparedness

Twenty years ago, only government, military and first responders gave a second thought to emergency preparedness. Today, this is an inescapable subject for all aspects of society, but especially education. K-12 schools and higher education institutions are increasingly cognizant of their responsibilities to protect students and to prepare for a wide range of events.

With this awareness comes the requirement for action. Districts and administration must initiate this action. Principals, superintendents, college presidents, chancellors, and administrators, along with others in leadership must establish the “culture” within the organization. It is incumbent on you to start the process of building a culture of preparedness in YOUR organization today.

Peter Hodes is the CEO of BOLDplanning Inc., a Nashville, Tennessee based company. BOLDplanning provides a range of emergency and continuity planning services nationally to over 7,000 government, education and healthcare organizations.

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