In response to the 14 December 2012 school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, President Barack Obama has offered a wide range of executive orders and proposals – including several specifically intended to make schools safer. One major component of his safe-schools proposal is to ensure that all of the nation’s schools have effective and comprehensive emergency management plans in place. As part of that proposal, he charged the federal-government’s Departments of Education, Justice, Homeland Security, and Health and Human Services with developing a model set of emergency management plans.

These model plans will presumably supplement earlier guidelines published in 2006 by the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center of the U.S. Department of Education. The previous guidelines provide what seems to be a reasonably broad framework for such plans, but a recent review by CNA of emergency management plans for school districts in the greater Washington, D.C., area found them lacking the specific details needed to make them operationally effective.

To begin with, each school in the nation has unique security considerations. However, because security plans are often developed at the district level, they are usually not customized enough for each and every location in the district. For example, response time is a critical factor in emergency planning. Schools built at a greater distance from hospitals or police stations have needs, therefore, that might be considerably different from those of schools located closer to such emergency facilities. Moreover, sprawling one-story schools with many exits may well have security needs considerably different from those of other schools – two or more stories high, perhaps, and with only a few exits. District-level plans often do not recognize or account for such differences.

Deterrence First, Plus Improved Communications

A truly comprehensive plan also would include sections not only on response and recovery but also – to deter or avoid incidents – on prevention, protection, and mitigation. That same more detailed plan would probably also include the establishment of a clear chain of communications to report threatening statements, suspicious behavior, and/or any other evidence suggesting a possible intent to commit mass violence on school grounds.

Also included in the more comprehensive plan would be designation of the school officials specifically responsible for screening – and, if necessary, relaying – information to law enforcement and healthcare agencies; also, in a worst-case scenario, to the families of students and members of the school’s staff. Armed with such information, first responders and local officials would then be able to work effectively with school staffs to develop the detailed guidance needed for reporting and responding to potentially dangerous incidents.

Some current plans do not cover scenarios specific to mass shootings, which should at least provide: (a) the information that should be relayed in 911 calls (e.g., location of shooter, the type of weapon used); (b) the varying factors that must be considered when deciding whether to shelter in place, lock down, or evacuate; and/or (c) a list of the school officials authorized to make such decisions. Moreover, some plans do not even spell out in detail the communications and coordination also required – between school officials and first responders – to cope with such incidents.

Drills & Exercises: What, When & How Often?

Many plans now in place also lack even a modest list of training and exercise requirements. More effective plans would specify not only who should participate in such training but also how, and how often, the entire school should conduct a drill or exercise. Of particular importance in this area would be the need to conduct joint exercises with first-responder agencies. Schools that carry out emergency response drills following the same scenario each and every time miss the opportunity to identify gaps and shortfalls in the response to different types of emergencies because repetition of the same drills becomes mechanical in execution. The use of varying scenarios would allow officials to review the results and modify the plans as needed.

The federal government will likely post the model plans online. But those plans would not, by themselves, make schools safer unless school officials, working in conjunction with first responders, tailor the model plans to local circumstances. In his comments to the nation following the Newtown shootings, President Obama acknowledged that the vast majority of the nation’s schools already have emergency management plans on paper, but barely half of the schools had exercised those plans in recent years. That responsibility falls on local school officials and first responders.

By reexamining existing emergency management plans, local officials can help to ensure that the plans being revised, promulgated, and implemented provide enough detail and flexibility to support decision-making in rapidly unfolding events. Planning to cope with mass shootings is a particularly difficult challenge because such shootings tend to be extremely rare events. In a year or two, as new issues arise, vigilance may fade, but local officials must overcome the complacency of quietude. If they do not, U.S. schools will continue to be vulnerable, and the nation may face the terrifying prospect of another Newtown tragedy in the not-too-distant future.

Donald J. Cymrot is a vice president at CNA, a not-for-profit research and analysis organization. He directs both the quality management system in one of CNA’s operating units and the education practice. He leads CNA Education in conducting research and providing technical assistance on a variety of topics from pre-kindergarten to post-secondary and workforce issues. Among his recent efforts is an initiative to improve emergency planning within schools. Previously, he directed CNA’s manpower and training research team for which he was awarded a Superior Public Service Medal by the Department of the Navy. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Brown University.

Donald J. Cymrot

Donald J. Cymrot is a vice president at CNA, a not-for-profit research and analysis organization. He directs both the quality management system in one of CNA’s operating units and the education practice. He leads CNA Education in conducting research and providing technical assistance on a variety of topics from pre-kindergarten to post-secondary and workforce issues. Among his recent efforts is an initiative to improve emergency planning within schools. Previously, he directed CNA’s manpower and training research team for which he was awarded a Superior Public Service Medal by the Department of the Navy. He holds a Ph.D. in Economics from Brown University.

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Stephen E. Rickman

Stephen E. Rickman, who is the director of Justice Programs at CNA. Previously, he was the director of the D.C. Emergency Management Agency and director of readiness for the White House Office of Homeland Security.

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