two young children at desk writing with pencil in right hand
Source: CDC/Unsplash

A Plan to Protect the Youngest Children

Today’s world presents many challenges that impact school children. Targeted violence, drug addiction, and human trafficking do not exclude children, including those in preschools. In October 2022, a tragic incident occurred at a Thailand daycare, resulting in the death of 24 children. In February 2024, two teens were apprehended while traveling to Texas after threatening to carry out a shooting at a daycare there. In May 2024, a man poured flammable liquid at the entrance of a preschool with 48 children inside. As deadly incidents like Uvalde and alarming threats continue, there is an ever-increasing focus on assisting K-12 public schools with training, notification systems, and environmental improvements. However, those educating the youngest, most vulnerable children are likely unable to access specific resources. 

Studies have recognized that the earliest years of a child’s life are where strong learning habits and abilities are developed, such as language development. Parents today see the benefits of early childhood education beyond just providing “daycare.” With the number of children enrolled in preschool rebounding since the COVID-19 shutdowns, the emphasis remains on providing the safest environment possible. While there have been no documented events carried out at preschools in the United States, the threats are present, which is precisely the reason to raise awareness of this overlooked segment and bring resources directly to them before their vulnerability leads to a tragic event. Saving lives is possible with knowledge, preparation, and focus.   

Training the Preschools’ “First Responders” 

Preschools generally exist as independently owned and operated facilities rather than part of the public school system. The Marjorie Stoneman Douglas School Safety Act of 2018, enacted after the Parkland shooting, introduced a mandate and funding for armed resource officers in public schools. This act did not provide armed officers to preschools operating as independent businesses. Budgets for this privately operating business segment are often restrictive, with resources focused on providing quality teachers and curriculums. These entities operate under the oversight of organizations that monitor licensing, quality, safety, and teacher qualifications. These schools are responsible to evaluate and understand the concept of planning for a possible active assailant event or potential issues with human trafficking, custody disputes, and drug addiction. 

According to the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools, “Training is a key component of school safety. Schools and districts should train stakeholders on the emergency operations plan (EOP) and their roles and responsibilities.” While Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools explicitly targets K-12 schools, these principles also apply to preschools. Planning and preparation are essential and should include readily available resources and support for these schools to minimize the heavy lift for these small businesses.  

As part of the planning and preparation process, assessing the environmental design of schools and how to use the design process to save lives are essential building blocks of any safety plan. Breaking out of prior mindsets, such as “it won’t happen here,” and thinking in a new way by developing, understanding, and practicing a plan will support quick recognition of threats. Understanding the environment and utilizing situational awareness both enhance decision-making and actionable tasks that can change outcomes and prevent children from being easy targets for perpetrators. Within a school, a survival mindset is fundamental and, in stressful times, teachers must be effective leaders. While law enforcement takes control of the situation upon their arrival, teachers are indeed the first responders during critical moments at the onset of an event. According to a 2022 Everytown report, “For the last 20 years, students, educators, and parents have lived with the reality of increasingly frequent school shootings.” As soft targets, preschool teachers and staff need training, notification, and resources as much as any other school. However, one of the greatest challenges any school faces is finding a way to include additional training and education into an already stretched budget. 

Learning Opportunities to Address School Safety Gaps 

Targeted crime, drug-related activity, and human trafficking can impact anyone, and the number of victims killed, injured, bought, or sold is staggering. Holes left in families’ lives by the tragic loss of a loved one due to violence or drugs cannot be filled. To mitigate future threats, communities must work collaboratively to find solutions to these continuing issues and alter the outcomes of future events. The following questions can help begin these collaborative discussions: 

  • What are the signs of drug addiction and related activities? How could we effectively intervene? 
  • What are the signs of human trafficking? How could we protect children from deceptive outreach efforts? 
  • What are the physical and psychological signs of potentially violent actors? How could we address underlying issues that drive individuals to commit acts of violence against schools? 
  • How can we engage preschools, parents, and other community members in raising awareness of these issues and developing preventative measures to protect and provide safe environments for the children? 

Providing educators, staff, and parents of preschoolers with learning opportunities and danger notifications can help reduce their vulnerability. Training on these topics raises awareness of potential threats, introduces new ideas, and stimulates fruitful discussions. Notifications increase opportunities to respond quickly when a threat emerges. Many educational and training programs through governmental agencies, academic facilities, nonprofit organizations, and private sector companies can help. Free online courses remove potential availability and affordability barriers. For example: 

  • Federal Emergency Management Agency offers free courses on developing and maintaining a school emergency operations plan (IS-362.A: Multi-Hazard Emergency Planning for Schools) and preparing for mass casualty incidents (IS-360: Preparing for Mass Casualty Incidents: A Guide for Schools, Higher Education, and Houses of Worship). 
  • Organizations such as School Safety (https://www.schoolsafety.gov) provide recommendations for K-12 schools on topics including targeted violence and child exploitation. The founders of Safe and Sound Schools (https://www.safeandsoundschools.org) and Sandy Hook Promise (https://sandyhookpromise.org/) began their efforts to stop school violence after having lost children in the Sandy Hook Elementary shooting in December 2022.  

These programs provide valuable services but are not focused on preschools’ distinctive needs. More public service and emergency agencies should concentrate on preschools’ concerns and bring resources to support this important age group. With focused attention, chances are exponentially improved for a tragic event to be averted or the impact on lives minimized. 

Accelerating Training and Knowledge Across Jurisdictions 

In 2018, the State of Florida and From Cradle to College Foundation took steps to address this safety gap by establishing the Preschool Emergency Alert Response Learning System (PEARLS), an educational program that is specifically for and available to preschools statewide at no cost to them. PEARLS empowers preschool teachers with options that illustrate how much their actions matter. Through the program, knowledge, planning, and preparation assist in building confidence in decision-making and actions when an incident occurs. 

Teachers are natural protectors, so supporting them with accelerated emergency training fulfills an imperative component of their knowledge base. PEARLS is an example of how states can close school preparedness gaps by expanding education and training directly to preschools’ “first responders.” Preparedness professionals can learn more about this program at the website: https://fromcradletocollegefoundation.org/pearls-program/. Other states should consider developing similar outreach programs within their jurisdictions to better protect their youngest children. 

Marie O’Connell

MarieO’Connellis theexecutivedirector of From Cradle to College Foundation Inc., a non-profit organization serving children and educators throughout the state of Florida.This role encompasses her experiences in business operations, human resources, risk management, and community service.Her passionfor protectingyoungchildren led her to develop and lead a team that brings unique and relevant education to early educators through the PEARLS program.  

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