As a parent, feeling confident in the safety of your child at the school they attend is extremely important. Read on to learn what schools may be doing to be safer and better prepared for an emergency or crisis, and key questions you can ask.
What’s the school crisis plan?
All schools should have an organized, systematic emergency operations plan in place to reduce risks or prevent, prepare for, respond to and recover from a crisis situation. These may range from a death or accident affecting a member of the school community to a natural disaster or crisis and affecting a lot of individuals in the school.
Many school districts have a safety coordinator or director, or have assigned this role to one of the district administrators. School faculty and staff are trained to assess the seriousness of incidents and respond according to the plan’s established procedures and guidelines. The federal Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operation Plans gives guidance for each type of community.
What parents can do
While the school staff has been trained and continue to receive guidance on how best to help students, the best advocate for your child is YOU! Ask your child’s teacher or a school administrator about the plans the school has in place for emergencies such as fires, blizzards, bomb threats and armed intruders. You can also ask how often school officials and safety experts meet to discuss safety procedures. While some schools may hesitate to share all parts of their plans and strategies, make yourself aware of the information available to you.
Live active shooter drills at schools
In recent years, many school districts adopted live crisis drills meant to help students and staff respond in the event of a school shooter. Some of these drills involved real gunfire or blanks, actors posing as shooters, and theater makeup to simulate blood or gunshot wounds. In some cases, students and staff were led to think there was an actual attack taking place.
Although well intended, these hyper-realistic drills can be psychologically harmful to students without much proof they effectively prepare them for a crisis. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises active shooter drills instead be conducted like fire drills—which don’t simulate an actual fire—using a calm approach to the safe movement of students and staff in the school building. It also encourages increased mental health support and violence prevention efforts in schools.
How are emergencies at schools communicated to parents?
To prevent possibly risking the safety of your child and their classmates, it is important for parents to understand what the school and local law enforcement require of them during emergency situations.
Misinformation can easily spread if a crisis situation occurs at your child’s school. Because of this, it is the responsibility of the school staff to provide parents with timely information on the status of their child’s safety. For example, some schools have an emergency communication system in place that notifies parents via email, voice and text messages. Schools typically inform parents of any unusual situation that demands one of the protocols listed above. However, they may not provide prior notice of drills.
School emergency response terms to know
Evacuation: Used to move students and staff out of the building.
During an evacuation, students and staff leave and move to a nearby location and return to the school building right after the cause of evacuation is resolved. Schools practice evacuations regularly (often monthly) during fire drills.
Relocation: Used to move students and staff to a pre-designated alternate site following evacuation when it is determined that returning to the school building will not take place within a reasonable period of time.
Depending on the time of day and the circumstances, students may be released early or school activities may be changed or put on hold until they are able to return to the school building. Plans should also be in place for students and staff with limited mobility who may need assistance moving to the relocation site.
Shelter-in-place: Used during severe weather or other environmental threats (e.g., air contamination due to a local fire).
This is a precaution aimed to keep people safe while remaining indoors. (This is not the same thing as going to a shelter in case of a storm.) In schools, shelter-in-place involves having all students, staff, and visitors take shelter in pre-selected rooms that have phone access and stored disaster supplies kits and, preferably, access to a bathroom. The room doors are then shut.
Lockdown: Used when there is a perceived danger inside the building.
A lockdown includes securing each occupied room by locking the door(s) and directing people to move away from windows and doors. Hallways are cleared of students and school staff. Typically, local law enforcement arrives to secure the site and arrange for evacuation or return to usual building activities. Students are kept in their classrooms or other secured areas in the school until the lockdown has ended.
Lockout: Used to secure the building from a potential threat outside the building, such as when an unauthorized person is loitering on school grounds or when there is criminal activity in the neighborhood.
During a lockout, access to the building is restricted, but there may be some limited movement within the building.
A school safety checklist for families
Review with your child the family emergency plan, including reunification and communication options.
Provide the school with information about any unique needs your children may have. You can do this by filling out an emergency information form and working with school health staff to be sure there is an emergency plan on file for your child. It should include information on health issues and what is needed during other school emergencies.
Consider having back up/extra medication or other items at your child’s school in case there is an emergency where your child needs to remain in the building for a longer period of time.
Provide the school and your child’s teacher with up-to-date contact information for family or friends who can pick up and care for your child if you are unavailable. Be sure to update this information as needed throughout the school year.
Learn about the school’s plan for emergency response, including parental access during emergencies, school emergency contact information, meet-up locations and other reunification plans.
Advise the school if your child has special needs during a crisis or drill. This may include the need for assistance with mobility or communication during an evacuation or additional support due to anxiety or prior traumatic experiences.
Helpful guidelines for talking with children about school safety
For some children, even participating in a drill may cause some emotional distress. This is especially true if it reminds them of a prior crisis event, or if they otherwise are feeling vulnerable or anxious.
As a parent, you are in the best position to help your child cope with trauma they experience during an emergency or safety drill at school. Any conversation with a child must be appropriate for their age and developmental stage.
Young children need brief simple information that should be balanced with reassurance. This includes informing children that their school and home are generally safe and that adults are available to protect them. Young children often gauge how threatening or serious an event is by adult reactions. This is why, for example, parents are encouraged not to get overly emotional when saying goodbye on the first day of school. Young children respond well to simple examples of school safety, like reminding them the exterior doors are locked, just as you lock your doors at home at night.
Upper elementary and early middle school children may be more vocal in asking questions about whether they are truly safe and what is being done at their school. They may need assistance separating reality from fantasy. Parents can share the information they have about the school’s safety plan and any other relevant communication to ease their child’s mind.
Upper middle school and high school students may have strong and varying opinions about causes of violence in school and society. Parents should stress the role that students have in maintaining safe schools by following the school’s safety guidelines (not providing building access to strangers, reporting strangers on campus, reporting threats to school safety made by students or community members, for example).
No matter how old your children are, it’s best not to provide false reassurance or minimize their distress. Especially after media coverage of violence in another school or community, or after damage from a natural disaster, children may become more concerned about their safety. Help children learn to cope with distressing feelings, rather than pretend they don’t or shouldn’t exist.
Helping children cope after a crisis
It is important to talk with your child and to provide emotional support in the aftermath of a crisis situation. Invite your child to talk, but wait for your child to accept the invitation. Some children may not express their concerns verbally. Be aware of signs that children might be in distress, such as changes in behavior, anxiety, sleep problems, acting out, problems at school or with academic work. Recognize that many children may hide their distress, at times in order to protect you and other caregivers.
If you have any questions or concerns, talk with your child’s doctor, a mental health professional, or the school nurse, counselor, or social worker at your child’s school.
- When Your Child Has a Medical Emergency at School
- Reuniting With Your Child After a Disaster: 10 Planning Tips
- Getting Your Family Prepared for a Disaster
- National Center for School Crisis and Bereavement