School safety and campus security are difficult topics to address, but they are a necessary part of emergency planning and were the focus of a seminar series held earlier this spring in the District of Columbia, Virginia, and Maryland. The series tackled preparedness for K-12 and college campus safety for both man-made and natural disaster events.
Participants and speakers came from jurisdictions across the region and included educators, law enforcement, and safety planners. Guiding the discussion was the theme, ‘be prepared’, and in doing so, ‘have a plan.’ This basic strategy is of chief concern, as communications and mobility can become constrained during emergency situations. "Preparing crises in schools is critical to keeping students and staff safe and parents informed," noted Mehrab Karim of Montgomery County's Office of Emergency Management and Homeland Security. She is also a member of the Council of Governments’ Regional Planners (Emergency Management) Subcommittee, which organized these three seminars.
A variety of experts led the seminar discussions. “School staff members need to know what to do during an emergency situation, because all too often, staff members are usually the first responders,” said David Esquith, Director of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students. Esquith elaborated that schools know their environments better than anyone else and need to prioritize risks within their environments during emergencies. During an active shooter crisis, such as the one at Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County, extra preparedness would have been beneficial, according to Perry Hall Principal George Roberts. He recounted his experience with a gunman on campus, in a scenario in which, remarkably, no one died.
E. Reed Smith, Operational Medical Director of Arlington County Fire Department urged that though these scenarios are terrible, they now are more easily prepared for by using the data from past incidences. “Active shooter situations typically start and finish within ten minutes, and often end when law enforcement arrives,” noted Smith. In addition to school staff needing to be prepared, it is also critical to know what local community response will be like. Smith noted that law enforcement often arrive within minutes of a situation beginning: key to stopping an active shooter scenario.
The seminar also focused on what to do in the case of a natural emergency, such as the ice-storm that hit Atlanta this past winter and stranded a large number of school children. Janet Clements of the All Hazards Consortium, an emergency preparedness non-profit, spoke to “sheltering in place.” Critical to this strategy is an established communications plan, so that parents and educators can connect, avoiding personal stress and helping parents avoid the dangers of trying to reach their child in rough conditions. Preparedness, again, was essential to mitigate the impact of school crises.
During the three seminars, which drew a combined audience of more than 500 people, participants exchanged valuable information and strategies that they hope to apply in their schools and communities. The COG Planners Subcommittee consists of educators, security think tank researchers, emergency preparedness managers from state and local governments, and law enforcement from multiple jurisdictions, who meet to discuss and share best practices in preparedness from COG’s member jurisdictions.