At Pottsgrove Middle School, which sits alone on a hill outside the small town of Pottstown, PA, about an hour northwest of Philadelphia, students had settled into their routine on a bitterly cold December morning six years ago. Then, suddenly, some students started to pass out.
By the time Principal William Ziegler was debriefing with his staff that evening about the mysterious circumstances that sent 27 students to the hospital, he had handled a wide array of issues that confront school administrators as they face crises in their buildings.
Ziegler, who is now principal at nearby Pottsgrove High School, says that while having a good emergency plan is important, knowing it and practicing it is the real key.
“The leaders on-site and at the district office needed to think and act quickly,” he says. “Decisions need to be made on the spot. In other words, there isn’t time to turn to page 66 of your plan and then implement it.”
Ziegler is proud of how his school handled this unusual situation, which began when a few choir members passed out during practice in the auditorium—two fell off the risers—and the word spread and hysteria ensued. The situation was compounded by cold temperatures that students had to endure as they evacuated the building and a crush of media and parents who descended on the school. Ziegler had to find shelter and transportation for students—and immediate medical care had to be coordinated on the fly.
While this situation was different from those so prominently featured in the news recently, Ziegler is quick to point out that serious events that threaten safety never are predictable. “Nothing can ever entirely prepare you for something like this,” he says.
In 2012, George Roberts was principal at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore when a student was shot by a classmate and a staff member was nearly wounded as he tried to intercede. The shooter was eventually subdued by a resource officer (see Special Section below).
“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be prepared,” says Roberts, now a community superintendent with Baltimore County Public Schools who speaks on school safety. “You really can never fully prepare. It is never going to happen where or how or when you expect, but it is important to have a comprehensive plan, and study and practice it. Then it becomes instinctual.”
Crafting Appropriate Emergency Plans
For decades, school officials have recognized the need for emergency plans—whether it was having students crawl under the desk with coats over their heads for a 1950s nuclear attack drill, or filing out in an orderly fashion for a simple fire drill. But threats have become different over time, and emergency plans have had to become more sophisticated.
Nearly all schools have a plan in place now, but in many cases, they need to be updated and revised—and practiced. Education Week recently reported that only 1 in 5 resource officers believes their school is prepared to handle an active shooter, for instance.
Roberts says he has found that four basic plans are usually needed: handling a regular evacuation like the traditional fire drill, moving students farther away from the building or to an alternative location, establishing an “alert” status to keep students from leaving the school, and announcing a lockdown with doors and windows closed and covered.
The approach should be simple, nimble, and well-rehearsed.
Jeff Simon, principal at Payson High School in Utah who has written about school safety, says too often school plans are well-developed, but as the busy school year moves on or another one arrives, plans aren’t updated and the staff isn’t given refreshers.
At Payson High, officials collect emergency notebooks during teacher checkout at the end of the school year to update names and procedures. Then, they give them back to staff before the new school year starts after carefully reviewing the processes. This year, administrators put scheduled drills on the calendar prior to the school year. The staff also went through potential scenarios regularly to keep everyone aware of their responsibilities and had debriefings after drills. Simon has required that administrators take a class offered through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Management Institute. “To be honest, we always have to look at new ways to keep it fresh,” he says. “We have to look to improve our practice each year. This is too important.”
Outline Specific Details
Simon says emergency plans should describe a clear chain of command and outline good systems for communications. He also believes it is important to consult with local officials in law enforcement and the medical community about a school’s emergency management plan.
A process for release and reunification with parents should be spelled out clearly for locations on and off campus, with a system for accounting for every student, Simon says. Parents should be informed about the system, sign off on it, and then be reminded about it.
While both traditional and social media outlets are important ways to pass along key information, Ziegler stresses that one person should be responsible for each. A structure for social media reports was valuable to him, and he recommends they be established and publicized in advance. When possible, administrators should also talk to media outlets in advance about school policy.
Kelly Vaillancourt Strobach, the director of government relations at the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), has reported that to support these efforts, funding was potentially available from the Every Student Succeeds Act through Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants (Title IV, Part A), but current funding may be problematic.
Culture Is Key
Roberts believes that principals should make sure that everyone—students, teachers, parents, and others in the community—know who they can speak to about concerns and know they can report them safely and confidentially.
“You have to build a culture of safety,” Roberts says. “Students and staff need to become more aware of what is happening around them and what to report. Is anyone acting differently? Is the mood OK? Do things seem normal? What might be going on that should be addressed?”
Brian Van Brunt, a private consultant on school security and executive director of the National Behavioral Intervention Team Association (NaBITA), believes schools should also have a behavior intervention team like colleges, though many K–12 schools don’t. These structures identify students who may be at risk and help develop systems to avoid a student being a threat.
“When we talk about intervention, it’s usually after a threat is identified and in the heat of a crisis,” Van Brunt says. “What we need is better early identification of the concerning behaviors and collaborative, consistent, and research-informed communication to prevent violence.”
He and other experts suggest that better systems that maintain privacy but allow officials to share critical information would also be a significant deterrent to school crises. Administrators, teachers, and others working with young people too often let their own biases affect their decisions about potentially worrisome student issues, rather than turning to objective information and procedures, Van Brunt says. NaBITA shares various research on threats and offers a threat assessment tool educators can draw from. NASP advocates for schools having a threat assessment procedure in place.
A trauma-informed approach schoolwide will help everyone in a school community both identify and help students who have suffered a trauma and may be a concern, says Deborah Moya, an assistant principal at ABQ Charter Academy in Albuquerque, NM, who advocates for the approach and has helped her school implement it successfully.
“Staff members who know students on a personal level, which is key to a trauma-informed approach, can tell when students are experiencing difficulty, and students who feel connected to any adult or peer at school are more likely to open up when there is a problem,” she says.
Of course, Moya notes, the trauma-informed training also can help a school heal from a problem. It provides those involved with tools for themselves and in support of others. The National Child Traumatic Stress Network has a variety of material online to help schools and students cope with a crisis in their school or others.
NASSP and NASP sponsor “A Framework for Safe and Successful Schools,” and NASSP has a policy statement with a list of useful resources and a learning module with several activities related to school safety. NASP offers resources and useful information on school shootings, including tips for administrators and physical and psychological safety standards it says are needed:
- Secure access points to school grounds and school buildings
- Appropriate check-in/out procedures for visitors
- Proper lighting and adult supervision in lobbies, hallways, parking lots, and other open spaces
- Environmental design that creates natural barriers to playgrounds and other open spaces
- In some communities, the use of school resource officers
- Trusting relationships among staff and students
- Access to comprehensive school mental and behavioral health services and school-employed mental health professionals
- A positive school climate
- Positive discipline practices
- Mechanisms for students and staff to report concerning behaviors or threats combined with an evidence-based protocol for responding
After the Incident
Most school districts have a structure for bringing extra counselors to a school where students have suffered from a traumatic event, which should be coordinated with other schools or outside services. And counselors should be knowledgeable about handling such events, but they may need additional training or refreshers, according to the American School Counselor Association, which offers information and training.
Roberts says it is very important to get students back to school quickly—not just to re-establish routines, but because they should not be alone, which may often be the case in some homes. Also, family members, while wanting to help the student, might not have the skills necessary.
One way to help students who have been through a crisis—or have been affected by hearing about the many dramatic incidents in the news—is to encourage them to take action.
Jack Tucker, a senior at Carroll Senior High School in Southlake, TX, is president of his student council and a member of the NASSP Student Leadership Advisory Committee. He says he’s seen a change in the student body.
School safety issues—especially after the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida—have energized students at his school, Tucker says. At Carroll, 650 students participated in a planned walkout after getting the support of the school administration. The school also held a voter registration drive and organized a “Students Demand Action” chapter. “After the Parkland shooting, there was a shift in emotion among my entire student body. People were upset and scared, but more importantly, they had found a new sense of empowerment,” he says.
Tucker says he believes his generation will be more active in their schools and communities, and thinks administrators should have structures in place to listen to their concerns about safety and a range of issues.
Administrators should make certain they respond—and let students know if they can take action, or if not, why not, Tucker says. Experts say schools should have structures in place to hear concerns of all students, using formal meetings with different groups, open conversation sessions, or even a simple suggestion box or feedback discussions. Be careful not to exclude any groups, he notes. Also enact a process for reviewing students’ ideas, and provide a system for giving students feedback and showing them how their ideas were implemented.
“While gun control is not the only topic of discussion, the current events happening in our country have created a conversation that our youth feel empowered to participate in,” Tucker says. “If a student feels strongly enough about a topic that they talk with their principal, I think a principal should listen to them. While it is not expected that a school administration will make policy solely from the opinions of students, it is important to have clear and open communications.”
Jim Paterson is a writer based in Lewes, DE.
Sidebar: Teachers With Guns?
What about arming teachers? “While we appreciate that the Trump administration has continued to search for school safety solutions in the wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, its proposal to arm teachers and other school personnel is entirely misguided and dangerous,” said NASSP Executive Director JoAnn Bartoletti in a statement after the shooting at the school in February. “Ironically, the proposed funding surge to ‘harden’ schools coincides with the president’s proposed elimination of student wellness services under Title IV of the Every Student Succeeds Act,” she added. “The Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grant would provide support consistent with the administration’s goals and—we strongly believe—accelerate communities toward those goals far more than an investment solely in physical security.”
Sidebar: Principals’ Emotional Health
Administrators who have faced a crisis in their school need to deal with their own emotional health as well, experts say.
“We tend to be Type A personalities and leaders, and in these situations we have a lot of responsibility and have to be in charge. Too often we don’t take care of ourselves,” says George Roberts, a community superintendent for Baltimore County Public Schools who was principal of a school in Maryland where a shooting occurred.
Experts say anyone who is close to a traumatic incident can suffer emotional distress or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). “For survivors who make it without any physical injuries, it takes a few months to assess the impact on their mental health adequately,” says Henry Montero, a therapist in New York commenting at the psychology website PsyCom.net. “While a lot of survivors may suffer from symptoms of trauma that include flashbacks, anxiety, sadness, insomnia, fear, and anger, these signs will start to fade over time as they start re-engaging in activities. However, for some, it may get worse, leading to depression or PTSD, which takes at least one month after an event to diagnose.”
Researchers note that while principals are good at using problem-focused coping, they may need to develop better emotional coping.
Roberts says talking to loved ones or colleagues can help—but principals should know when they need to speak with a professional and should pay close attention to how they feel. They won’t be useful as a leader, he notes, if they aren’t functioning fully.
To Learn More …
Check out these resources to aid in emergency preparedness training:
Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Management Institute (EMI)
EMI offers school officials courses supporting the implementation of National Incident Management Systems, as well as general courses aimed at building school emergency management capacity.
NASSP Guide: “A Framework for Safe and Successful Schools”
NASSP has collaborated with five organizations to provide school staff with a framework for school safety as well as for increasing social and academic support for children and youth.
National Behavioral Intervention Team Association (NaBITA)
NaBITA’s Threat Assessment Tool provides a rubric for behavioral and risk evaluation and helps create a common language for behavioral intervention teams.
The National Child Traumatic Stress Network (NCTSN)
NCTSN has developed tools and materials to help educators, school staff, and administrators understand and respond to the specific needs of traumatized children.