By Michaiah Chatman
Of the string of recent tragedies, none feel as desolate and heart-wrenching as the news that a school has been attacked and the innocent lives of students have been prematurely taken away from their parents and other loved ones.
Senseless attacks like the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting are disastrous and painful. However, parents should not live in fear that their children will be attacked. Parents should prepare themselves and learn what to do if they suspect a potentially violent threat to their children’s school. Parents can also learn how to combat the recent trend of cyber bullying.
SBISD Police Chief C.A. Brawner has experience in law enforcement and monitoring local Houston schools on his patrol beat. According to Brawner if a child comes home and reports a threat, the “first thing parents need to do is contact the principal immediately and let the principal know. Get the information from their child on who is conducting the threat that day if not the first thing the next morning.” Then, the school’s principal will contact the police, and law enforcement will investigate the matter.
In any emergency situations like a bomb threat or shooting, parents should stay calm and react with the best interests of their children in mind. By law, Texas school districts must adopt and implement a multi-hazard emergency operations plan for use in district schools that addresses mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery, and school employees must be trained in responding to an emergency.
Faced with a firearm threat, HISD school procedures are set in place to “lock down classrooms” to minimize movement and impede attackers. Code words, cameras, and safe areas are also used to combat firearm threats. Schools also undergo surprise security inspections conducted by the HISD police department. Norma Long, a parent involvement specialist at Gallegos Elementary School and a former HISD Employee of the Month, passed a surprise safety test by stopping a visitor who failed to produce a valid driver’s license.
For bomb threats, the best course of action is planned before a full evacuation of the school is ordered. Long states, “Every personnel in the office has a paper if someone calls and says there is a bomb in your school. It outlines what procedures to follow and says to call the police.”
Raptor NOW is a monitoring system that screens school visitors for registered sex offenders. “If you have a felony or are a sexual predator it will alert the system and HISD police will immediately call the school and ask ‘Is everything okay?’ It’s a program that the school actually pays for, and its not funded by the state,” explains Long.
Many Houston schools are part of the crime stoppers program. Parents can get involved by reporting suspicious activity. Chief Brawner states that he and other police “immediately act on those” crime stopper tips.
Some Houston schools have a text program where parents are first notified of actual threats with an automated call to home numbers. Then real time text messages are sent to parent’s cell phones. In the past, Gallegos Elementary had this program. This year “HISD won’t pay for it, but we are trying to get it back,” says Long.
Long suggests that parents should actively participate in their children’s schools on a regular basis. This will allow the parents to be stay abreast of the events and details of their school in a proactive manner.
Long also encourages her parents to participate in the school in other ways. The VIPS program, which stands for Volunteers in Public Schools, regularly offers helpful classes on topics such as texting while driving, ESL, and healthy nutrition. Long schedules VIPS classes at convenient times so that parents can participate.
With the rise of social media and Internet use, cyber bullying has also increased. Chief Brawner argues that parents can combat cyber bullying by monitoring their children when they are on the Internet and controlling what websites they are allowed to visit.
Texas Education Code 37.083 mandates that school districts provide for prevention of and education concerning unwanted physical or verbal aggression, sexual harassment, and other forms of bullying in school, on school grounds, and in school vehicles.
Parents should work with school officials and the programs currently in place to stop cyber bullying. Chief Brawner says, “Its important that the principals know about cyber threats so they can make sure nothing can happen at the schools.” Principals meet with alleged bullies in their office, and then principals contact parents to keep them updated.
Parents can also act against bullying by preventing their child from being a repeat victim. Texas Education Code 25.0342 allows a parent or other person with authority to make a request to the board of trustees of a school district or the board’s designee to transfer a victim of bullying to another classroom at the campus or to another campus in the school district.
Texas Senate Bill 393 titled Relating to the Prosecution of Children Accused of Class C Misdemeanors is pending law on this issue. If the bill is passed and becomes law, children who commit Class C misdemeanors like “sexting”, bullying, and other school offenses will be punished by graduated sanctions. Peace officers would no longer be able to issue citations to children.
“Legislators are afraid of starting a criminal record for these students, but it infringes on the rights of parents to be a complainant and file charges,” says Chief Brawner. He is concerned that if Senate Bill 393 goes in to effect “law enforcement’s hands will be tied” when it comes to certain offenses committed on school grounds.
Parents might be interested in familiarizing themselves with ARC Products’ crisis-management tips for schools. According to ARC Products (a leading manufacturer of cost-effective evacuation solutions), “Superintendents, school administrators and safety professionals across the country are required to make the best, informed decisions for students’ safety and security needs In order to mitigate risks associated with emergency evacuations, school districts, colleges and universities must have a proper plan in place.”
Safety expert, Clifford Adkins, CEO of Med Sled (an ARC Products evacuation device), has released his top-six crisis management tips to ensure schools across the country are better prepared for emergency events. Parents interested in ensuring their kids’ safety in the event of a crisis might consider getting involved in their school’s emergency preparedness plans and checking to see if they’ve considered these useful points.
Top Crisis Management Tips For Schools
Evacuation Expert Compiles Lessons Learned From Previous Disasters, Offers Preparedness Guide for Schools
- Plan for the worst-case scenario. In the late afternoon of May 22, 2011, an EF-5 tornado hit Joplin, Missouri and, for those in its path, “it was a catastrophic event that no one could have expected.” These words, from Charles Copple, the retired Battalion Chief for the City of Joplin Fire Department, should serve a reminder that you must plan for the worst. Over the past few years, the U.S. has experienced a record number of destructive natural disasters and, sadly, in recent years manmade disasters such as bomb incidents have increased dramatically creating new worst-case scenarios that we must consider in our evacuation planning. It seems with every week that goes by there are 10 or 15 bomb threats. While data on bomb incidents and threats in schools are limited, the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) recorded 1,055 incidents of bombs being placed on school premises from January 1990 to February 28, 2002. When developing school emergency plans, administrators must develop and plan for the worst-case which should include the loss of electric and use of elevators, hallways and stairs filled with debris, as well as the lack of outside support. The best plans look at those elements administrators are absolutely sure will be available to assist in their evacuation and plan for those not being there. Do your plans address the worst-case scenario?
- Assess risks of geographic vulnerabilities. When it comes to preparing for disasters, you cannot simply rely on the calendar or local forecast; you must rely on the need to be prepared for a multitude of disasters, both natural and manmade. Almost one-fourth of all significant tornadoes occur in Tornado Alley, yet the vast majority of high fatality tornadoes in recent years have occurred in areas such as the southeastern United States where tornadoes are an especially rare event on any given day. Stay informed of the types of emergencies likely to affect your region so you are ready for the unexpected.
- Conduct annual reviews of your evacuation protocols – If you have not, they are likely outdated. According to the National Association of State Boards of Education, there are no nationally-adopted emergency management standards for schools, meaning each school district is on its own to keep up with the evacuation protocol changes. Protocols have changed considerably since 9/11 – for example, “shelter-in-place” procedures are still widely used among school districts when, in fact, sheltering in place is one of the most misunderstood and applied protocols. For the majority of evacuation scenarios, “shelter-in-place” is not recommended by government agencies or emergency planning professionals. Of those people with disabilities that followed the “shelter-in-place” protocol during 9/11, not a single one survived. Leaving staff and students with a disability or injury behind while the ambulatory move to safety is an antiquated evacuation protocol that needs to be changed.
- Ensure plans address all students’ needs, including those with disabilities. Ushering hundreds of students from a school building takes serious coordination and planning. Do your protocols, plans and drills incorporate those with a disability or injury? What happens when a child or staff member is in a wheelchair or on crutches? While schools are required to conduct annual evacuation and safety drills, many fail to include those students and staff with special-needs in their planning process or in evacuation drills. This creates a serious gap in your emergency preparedness; it is critical to include the parents and the children with disabilities in the planning process AND during drills. Getting their input and support will ensure better plans and more realistic drills.
- Ensure you have the equipment to support your plans. The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) guidelines have become the de facto “best design practices” for making public schools accessible to individuals with special needs or disabilities. It is an ADA requirement that these individuals not only have access to the facilities, but that they can get out in an emergency. The National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities (NCEF) recommends plans should include procedures, equipment and training for evacuating school occupants – including special needs and disabled students and staff – in a variety of emergencies and building conditions and by a variety of routes. In large-scale evacuation scenarios, having the right evacuation equipment is critical. When evaluating equipment ensure you choose a manufacturer that will partner with you to assess your true needs, provide accessible and intuitive equipment and will address the worst-case scenario. Avoid carry and wheeled devices; these can be dangerous for both the student as well as staff in case you have to evacuate over debris-filled hallways. The best evacuation equipment needs to be non-lift, slide devices that address both vertical and horizontal evacuation needs.
- Be realistic in your training and drills. Protocols and equipment are critical to your emergency preparedness, but protocols are only as good as the training and drills you conduct. Existing research suggests that realistic drills can increase student and staffs’ knowledge and skills of how to respond in an emergency, without elevating their anxiety or perceived safety. Evacuations do not happen in a perfect environment, so make them as real as possible. Fire and police departments urge school districts to be self-sufficient in case first responders don’t arrive in time for an evacuation. When running a drill do not assume assistance from first responders; create a chaotic environment – pipe in noise, turn off the lights, shut down the elevators – and include your students and staff with disabilities. Create the environment that will truly prepare your staff and students for a real world evacuation.