I spoke last week at a summit for campus safety, security, and disaster resilience. I called for a broad alliance of school stakeholders (administrators, faculty, staff, employees, safety/security officers and students) and partners (military, police, media, local officials, emergency response organizations), to ensure readiness, mitigate risk, rapidly respond to emergencies, and skillfully manage crises.
Preparedness considers the whole gamut of risk and threat assessments, proper organization, the right mindset, the required skills, situational awareness, carefully thought out plans and programs, scenario-driven drills until practice makes perfect to reduce risk, handle emergencies, and fully recover from a crisis. Experts realize the challenges of integrated action and mission accomplishment because such an undertaking has many moving parts. Orchestrating their moves and obtaining desired outcomes are understandably hard work.
I’ve sat on the boards of several schools, so this subject matter is quite familiar to me. I can say confidently that our schools are target rich environments where risks and threats continually threaten their safety and security. As such, their bounden duty is to save lives and property from death, loss, and destruction. It requires all the necessary attributes for mission accomplishment such as: dynamic leadership, hands-on management, hawk-like monitoring, tight networking, effective communication, timely information, integration of effort, teamwork, instinctive action, passion, dedication, and commitment.
Internally, schools encounter theft or pilferage of office equipment and supplies; fire-related, sports-related, food-related, transport-related, and lab-related accidents; violence attributable to neuro-psychiatric cases, gang fights, bullying, and hazing; depression leading to suicides; and maltreatment of students by faculty members. Kids of single parents or from broken homes, and negligent school management and supervision cause all kinds of problems in school. And if the administrators, faculty, and staff are slow on the uptake, expect tragic results and consequences.
Externally, schools are also victimized by robbers; infiltrated by drug syndicates and subversive elements resulting in recruitment, lawlessness, dropouts, and tragic outcomes; terrorism (bombing, hostage-taking, massacres); and natural disasters such as earthquakes and sudden extreme weather. Terror-related attacks in school or when students are in transit are quite worrisome. But nothing could be more terrifying and widespread in scope than a super-quake when survival becomes the problem of an entire society that’s caught unprepared.
Let me share at this point the best practices for school security and safety and disaster resilience planning in five key strategy areas:
First, training school administrators, teachers, and support staff (school resource officers and security officers, secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, etc.) because the first and best line of defense is a well-trained, highly alert school staff and student body.
Second, evaluate how the school is organized to mitigate and deal with crises. Is it effectively organized to monitor for situational awareness, mitigate risk, and manage crises? Schools that are not or are poorly organized or those that “go through the motions” are bound to experience tragic outcomes.
Third, evaluate and refine school safety and security measures. They’re often equated with physical, tangible measures such as metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and trained K-9. While these are necessary, they’re only as good as the human element behind it. A sampling of basic cost-effective measures include reducing the number of open doors, having functional communications systems, trimming trees and shrubs for natural visibility, and establishing procedures for accurate and timely reporting.
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Fourth, updating and exercise school emergency preparedness plans. While schools have plans and teams on paper, these are sitting on shelves collecting dust. They are no good to anyone. Emergency plans should address strategies and preparedness processes such as lockdowns, evacuations, parent-student reunification procedures, school transport mobilization, communications protocols with parents and the media, and mental health services. All that means that all the teams must be trained. Plans should be reviewed (in cooperation with public safety partners) and updated, at least, annually.
Schools must work with public safety officials to identify staging areas for media, parents, medical personnel and security first responders. Plans must be regularly tested and adjusted in order to reach their maximum potential. It’s about drills, drill,s and more drills until practice makes perfect.
Tabletop exercises and full scale simulation drills are valuable in teaching important lessons for the crisis teams, public safety and community agency partners and other key stakeholders. Schools should practice lockdown drills over the course of a school year as they do fire and earthquake drills. It should be practiced in a realistic manner, unannounced, in the times and manner they would experience in a real emergency.
Form school threat assessment teams. Create a threat assessment protocol. Train staff on threat assessment.
Fifth, strengthen partnerships with public safety officials. School administrators and crisis team members should meet regularly, at least twice a year, with public safety partners (police, fire, emergency medical services, emergency management agencies, Red Cross, etc. Public safety partners should be involved in the development and updating of school emergency plans and tabletop exercises.
Schools should number each entrance/exit door so first responders can easily identify specific entrances/exists when called to respond to an incident and/or to manage a tactical response. Schools should also provide police and fire departments with updated floor plans and blueprints for their reference for tactical responses.
Police are strongly encouraged to train and practice the rapid-response-to-active-shooter techniques. Schools should make their schools and school buses available after-hours and/or on weekends so SWAT teams can practice responding to scenarios in these settings. They should work with first responders to create, implement, and train on school threat assessment protocols.
The schools have a grave responsibility to keep everyone who belongs there safe and secure against all kinds of risk, natural and man-made. Lives and property are on the line, and the school must mobilize all of its stakeholders to adopt a mindset of ensuring each other’s safety and security. It will take pro-active, charismatically persuasive, and persistent leadership to instill that culture.
Rafael M. Alunan III is a former Secretary of Interior and Local Government and chairs the Philippine Council for Foreign Relations.