Back to School: Are You Prepared for an Emergency?
Outdated and Ineffective School Safety Protocols Fail to Protect Students from Gun Violence, Suicide/Bullying, and Medical Emergency Fatalities
By William J. Smith & Stephanie Kent
It’s that time of year again! School is back in session, and parents can finally sigh in relief — or was that a feeling of the past?
School Gun Violence
Since January, 2015, there have been ninety-eight school shooting events in the United States. More shockingly, there have already been four school shootings since August 25th of this year. These statistics include firearms attacks on other person(s) resulting in injury or death, guns fired unintentionally resulting in injury or death, attempted or completed suicides using firearms, and guns fired, but no injuries reported. Clearly, gun-related violence on school property is a highly-charged issue, and statistically trending in the wrong direction.
Suicide Risk and Bullying
Gun violence is not the only threat that needs to be assessed when school is back in session. According to Suicide Awareness Voices of Education, over 16% of students (ages 15-24) seriously consider committing suicide, 13% devise a plan for their suicide and 8% have made one or more serious attempts at suicide. Bullying in schools is a major contributor to this devastating epidemic. A Yale University study has shown that students are 7-9% more likely to consider suicide when they have been bullied in school.
School Medical Emergencies
In addition to bullying and gun violence, every year there are dozens of natural medical emergencies that lead to student deaths across the nation. For example, in one unnamed district alone, there were multiple student deaths within a single year largely caused by the schools’ poorly crafted emergency response plan.
- One fatal case involved a first-grader who collapsed in his classroom and began turning blue. The boy had been complaining of a severe headache to his teacher, and he was sent to the back of the classroom to lay down. He started vomiting, so the school nurse was called into the room, and a voicemail was left for the student’s mother. By the time his mother arrived, the boy’s lips were blue and he was unresponsive. School employees waited too long (34 minutes after the severe headache was reported) to call 911, and did not attempt CPR on the child — despite their mandated training in CPR. He was taken to a hospital, and it was determined he suffered a brain hemorrhage. The child had gone too long without oxygen, resulting in his death the following day after being taken off life support
- A second fatal case in the same school district occurred that year, which resulted in the death of a handicapped girl and an $800,000 payout to her family. In this case, the child (who had a neuromuscular disorder) had a medical issue on the school bus. Neither the driver nor the aide called 911 as she turned blue and stopped breathing in her wheelchair. Instead, they called her mother twice as she passed away.
From 2009-2011, the USFA reported approximately 4,000 school building fires per year, and estimated 75 injuries and $66.1 million in property loss. School fire-related deaths are not common, but the financial, emotional and educational impact that school fires have is obvious. Shockingly, in only 66% of non-confined school building fires, smoke alarms were reported as present.
How Do We Minimize These Risks and Avoid Losing More Student Lives To Protocol Mistakes?
As a school district employee (Superintendent, School Safety Committee member, teacher, nurse, social worker, etc.):
- Ensure that the district and school’s “All Hazard Safety and Security Plan” is up to date, including the most recent changes in delegated personnel as well as emergency contact information (e.g. cell phone numbers) for all members of the incident response team.
- Maintain regular bi-annual meetings in which the “All Hazard Safety and Security Plan” that is in place at your school is thoroughly discussed and evaluated. Remember that ‘failing to plan is planning to fail.’ Having a protocol in place does not qualify as adequate planning. There is a need for constant reassessment of the efficacy of your school’s emergency response plans, especially as different types of threats continue to evolve. Each protocol and procedure needs to be reviewed regularly, and staff members must question them — even if they appear rock solid. For example, ‘Why does our policy say, “call the parent and notify the front desk immediately when a child is ill?”‘ If anyone had raised that question while reviewing policy, the children from the aforementioned school district might still be alive because 911 would have been the first call made.
- Implement/update policies and training on student bullying. Bullying can be kept under control within school walls if the staff are trained to first recognize it, and then to respond to it effectively without exacerbating the issue. Bullying should not be considered a “normal” part of growing up, and school staff can undoubtedly minimize the consequences if properly trained.
- While many states have regulations and requirements for conducting emergency response drills during the first month of the school year, schools should at minimum mandate monthly fire and lockdown drills. These practices are crucial in developing procedural proficiency for all site-based or regional emergencies, whether human caused, environmental, or weather-related.
- Training of all students, faculty, staff, and other school personnel (including food service and maintenance staff) is essential. Emergency response drills and regular policy tests should be mandatory among all school staff. As changes are made in policy, all personnel should be immediately informed and then tested on the revised protocols. CPR must also be included in teacher training, and practiced on dummies frequently. Had anyone attempted to administer CPR in the cases outlined above, there is a good chance that those children would have survived.
- Most importantly, coordinate your district’s All Hazard Safety and Security training activities with resident school resource officers (SROs) as well as representatives from designated responding emergency agencies, including, but not limited to local police officers, fire department personnel, emergency medical technicians (EMT). By doing so, administration, faculty and staff will become more proficient in their response and handling of any school emergency.