School crisis response plans come in a variety of formats. Although the structure may vary, the content must include the essentials for the plan to be usable and effective. A basic school-based crisis response plan has seven key elements: organizing structure, communications system, accountability system, parent/student reunification, alternative location, equipment and supplies, and aftermath/recovery plan.
First, there must be an organizing structure that clearly outlines roles and responsibilities. The organizing structure that is recommended for schools in the United States is the Incident Command System (ICS). The National Incident Management System (NIMS) was created to standardize response of not only emergency responders, but other government agencies, such as schools. The ICS is a component of NIMS and creates a common language and understanding of roles and responsibilities during an emergency. Many instances could be cited where a response was hampered because the agencies involved had to take the time during the crisis to figure out how to interact with one another. The resulting delay caused loss of property, injuries, confusion, and frustration.
The ICS is applied by function rather than personalities or titles and can either expand or contract as the crisis unfolds or resolves. For most schools, ICS concepts are familiar, but the language may be awkward or unfamiliar. Most schools need only to change titles and add a few new components to their already existing Crisis Response Team structure to adapt to the ICS. The time and resources to make the adaptations are well worth the effort.
The next essential for a crisis response plan is a communications system for all areas. The ability to communicate between all areas of the campus is a must. Procedures for communicating with students, staff, district office, parents, and the community in all phases of the crisis are necessary. A written communications plan for handling the media is also recommended. A crisis communications plan provides policies and procedures for the coordination within the organization as well as those outside the organization such as other agencies and/or parents (e.g., see Everett Public Schools Crisis Plan). Plans can be written by the Crisis Team or the district Communications Department but should have approval of administration.
The key to the plan is for all departments and spokespeople to give consistent information from the beginning of the crisis. This helps create credibility and trust. Time is critical during an emergency, so a crisis communications plan should outline who has authority (ahead of time) to create messages and speak for the district. This avoids delays in distributing information if messages were to go up the chain of command for approval. Preparing templates in noncrisis times ensures they are ready with fill-in-the-blank spaces for specific details when a crisis occurs. The plan should outline procedures for all forms of communication (e.g., digital alerting systems, public address systems, social media, web-based platforms, email notification of staff, media releases), press conference procedures, and designated spokespeople. The crisis communication plan is a component of the overall crisis plan and should also include a job description of a public information officer (PIO), who is part of the overall command structure (see Figs. 1-2).
Maintain Order and Accountability During Crisis
An accountability system is a cornerstone of an effective crisis response plan – a system whereby all people, students, and adults, on a campus can quickly be accounted for. For crises that cause mass confusion (e.g., an explosion in the chemistry laboratory, an intruder, a wall collapse), the sooner the whereabouts of everyone on campus are ascertained, the sooner order can be restored. Accountability can come from classroom attendance lists, sign in lists for the library, or other non-classroom sites. If the school needs to evacuate, staff has the responsibility for doing accountability for those students under their supervision. This includes not only classroom teachers but the librarian, cafeteria staff, counselors, and others on campus.
If the safest action is to stay inside, accountability can be done by email, calls to the office, or some other method. In the plan, a group should be designated to immediately begin accountability efforts and update as needed to maintain current lists. The information from this team then is shared with parent reunification, command staff, and others as needed – always being sensitive to not let the information become public if there are students or adults still missing or injured. Accountability systems need to be designed to quickly account for everyone on a campus or in a district facility, including students, staff, visitors, vendors, itinerant staff (see Fig. 3).
The next essential is a parent/student reunification plan (see Fig. 4). Parents are going to be intent on getting information and connecting with their child to know they are safe. By preplanning, a system would be in place that allows children to be calmly released to the appropriate person and provides proper documentation that may be needed later to know where a particular student has gone and with whom. However, there are two tasks that parents require immediately – even before they are reunified with their students:
- Information – Even if all the information is not yet available, give them what is known and update them frequently.
- The sense that someone is in control – When a process is in place that parents know and trust, it makes a significant difference.
The key components of the parent/student reunification plan should include at the minimum:
- A check-in gate for parents
- A location where students are being accounted for and supervised
- A separate location than either of the two above where parents and students are reunited
- A procedure for requesting a certain student
- Adequate staff and security to handle the crowd of parents
- A sign-out procedure to know which students have been picked up and by what adult
An alternative location for students to be moved must be outlined ahead of time. It is suggested that at least two locations be designated. One that students can be bussed to if transportation is available and another that may be an intermediate location that students can walk to while awaiting transportation. If using a neighborhood church or similar location, it is advisable to have a written agreement in place.
Equipment and supplies are a must to have what is needed when it is needed. Equipment needs will vary, but the basics include two-way radios, identification vests, signs, paper and pens, first aid kit, checklists, and a hard copy of the response plan.
Recover More Rapidly After an Event
The final essential element of an effective crisis response plan is an aftermath/recovery plan. A crisis that impacts a school community lasts longer than the first response phase that might bring emergency responders to campus. A crisis is an emotionally significant event, and students and staff must be supported to help them come back to a sense of normalcy and to avert the risk of post-traumatic stress syndrome because of the event. More than half of all people exposed to a critical incident experience symptoms ranging from sleep disturbances, eating disruptions, and intrusive memories to fear, agitation, anger, and blame within the first three weeks. Students and staff alike need to be given the opportunity to express their feelings and learn that they are having a normal reaction to an abnormal event.
An aftermath plan should include the following:
- List of resources available to assist and activities that can be used in classrooms, safe rooms, and meetings – A “safe room” is a designated space where students can go if they are having difficulty maintaining their composure in a regular supportive classroom environment. It should be staffed by at least two people and equipped with tissues, drawing and writing materials, stuffed animals, appropriate literature, and refreshments such as cookies and juice. A separate “staff safe room” may be needed also. Note: This is not open permission to leave class and wander the campus. A procedure must be in place with a hall pass and attendance being taken as students come and go both in the classroom and in the safe room.
- Immediate activities, done before anyone leaves campus – These might include conversations about the impact, information on immediate stress management, and information on the resources that are available that day and will be available the next day.
- Activities that will be done for the next few days, weeks, and even months (takes into consideration trigger events such as anniversaries) –These can include stress management activities, counseling conversations, grief and loss groups, acknowledgement of loss activities (not on-campus funeral or memorial services), and empty desk syndrome actions that are guided by school crisis mental health professionals.
The aftermath plan sometimes is seen as separate from the crisis response plan but is an essential component for the plan to be complete. The actual format of a school crisis response plan may be variable, but it must contain these seven essentials to be useful and effective. By leaving one or more of these pieces out, schools will find it difficult in an emergency to accomplish all that they must to bring the crisis under control quickly.
Mary Schoenfeldt, Ph.D., is the board president of Green Cross Academy of Traumatology and has responded to countless disasters. She is an emergency management professional specializing in community and school crises and has a passion for disaster psychology. She is a faculty member of FEMA Emergency Management Institute, an adjunct faculty at Pierce College, and a subject matter expert for the U.S. Department of Education. She also serves clients through her consulting business. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.