What is a Crisis, and What Should Your District Do to Be Prepared?

Posted by: Peter Broderick on 12/20/2012

Originally published as part of an MASB special report on school security, Summer 2007.

Thanks to the efforts of school board members, administrators, teachers and staff across Michigan, schools are safe places for our children. Regardless of this fact, the reality is that schools may be touched by a crisis at any time.

If your district is faced with a crisis, either natural or man-made, students in your district will look to the adults to get them through the crisis. It’s imperative that district personnel are prepared to handle the crisis, large or small, so that student safety is ensured and the focus can return as quickly as possible to educating the students.

Being prepared to handle a crisis or emergency situation can save lives, personal injury or property damage.

It’s important to remember that there’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to crisis planning. School districts differ in size, location and access to resources, to name a few. While it’s OK to look to what other districts have done as models, your plan should be customized to your local needs.

Also, the term crisis means different things to different people, and what constitutes a crisis will likely vary as well. Often the terms crisis, emergency and disaster are used interchangeably. Following are some definitions of crisis that you can use to help craft your own definition based on local needs, resources and vulnerabilities.

Federal Emergency Management Agency: An emergency is any unplanned event that can cause deaths or significant injuries to employees, customers or the public; or that can shut down your business, disrupt operations, cause physical or environmental damage, or threaten financial standing and public image.

Olathe Unified School District #233 (Kansas) people crisis: An event dealing with people and their physical or emotional well-being that impacts the school population.

American Oxford Dictionary: A time of intense difficulty, trouble or danger. A time when a difficult or important decision must be made.

You may be thinking to yourself “those definitions sound serious, we live in a safe community where it’s unlikely something of that nature will happen.” STOP. Whether or not it’s unlikely a crisis will occur at your school, you still need to be prepared. The process used to prepare you for major crises can also help you deal with minor mishaps.

There are some key principles to keep in mind that will help you in developing your plan.

  • Effective crisis planning begins with leadership at the top. Top leadership helps set the policy agenda, secure funds and brings the necessary people together.
  • Crisis plans should not be developed in a vacuum. Crisis plans are a natural extension of ongoing efforts to create safe learning environments. Plans should address incidents that could occur inside school buildings, on school grounds and in the community.
  • School districts should open the lines of communication well before a crisis. Relationships need to be built in advance so that emergency responders are familiar with your schools. Cultivate relationships with city managers, public works officials and health and mental health professionals, and don’t forget the media. It’s important that all of these groups understand how the district will respond in a crisis.
  • Crisis plans should be developed in partnership with law enforcement, fire safety officials, emergency medical services and health and mental health professionals. Don’t reinvent the wheel. These groups know what to do in an emergency and can be helpful in developing your plan.
  • A common vocabulary is necessary. It’s critical that school staff and emergency responders know each other’s language. The words used to give directions for evacuations, lockdown or other actions should be clear and not hazard specific.
  • Schools should tailor district crisis plans to meet individual school needs. Just as school districts differ, individual schools within a district can differ. Customize your plans to specific audiences, and make sure that plans are age appropriate. Elementary students and high schoolers will likely respond in different ways.
  • Plan for the diverse needs of children and staff. Very few schools address the needs of children or staff with physical, sensory, motor, developmental or mental challenges. Special attention is also needed for children with limited English proficiency. Keep in mind that outreach documents for families may need to be in several languages.
  • Provide teachers and staff with ready access to the plan so they can understand its components. People who have experienced a crisis often report that they go on “autopilot” during an incident. Knowing what you’re supposed to do ahead of time can help alleviate panic and anxiety.
  • Training and practice are essential for the successful implementation of crisis plans. Don’t just create your plan and then file it away in a dark corner. Safety drills allow your school to evaluate what works and what needs to be improved.
  • Crisis plans are living documents. Just as you need to practice your plan, it’s also important to review and revise it on a regular basis. After a drill or real event, analyze your plan and identify what pieces worked and didn’t. Analyzing this information will allow you to strengthen the plan and be even better prepared to respond in the future.

Every district hopes they won’t have to use a crisis or emergency plan. It’s vital that every district develop a plan so it can be as prepared as possible to handle potential crisis situations. As former U.S. Education Secretary Ron Paige said, “As a former superintendent of the nation’s seventh largest school district, I know the importance of emergency planning. The midst of a crisis is not the time to start figuring out who ought to do what. At that moment, everyone involved—from top to bottom— should know the drill and know each other.”

Source: U.S. Department of Education, Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, Practical Information on Crisis Planning: A Guide for Schools and Communities, www.


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