Feature                                                   Pages 26-29


A False Sense of Security

Managing the aftermath of a crisis in what the author calls a ‘new normal’ for school communities


In the wake of the tragic occurrence at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., the attention of school districts across the country has been unavoidably redirected from the usual business of education to that of school safety.

School leaders have participated in state and national school safety forums. Many have joined forces with their professional associations, stakeholder groups and lawmakers to advocate for safer-schools legislation.

Michael Regan 

No one can argue these broad-scale activities are unimportant. But prevention never delivers a guarantee and often leads to a false sense of security. As public schools regain their footing in what has been so aptly described as the “new normal,” school leaders must take advantage of the valuable lessons of the past that when crisis occurs, schools must be ready to respond.

My first involvement in a major crisis occurred 20 years ago when a student was murdered at the doorstep of New Britain, Conn., High School, where I worked as a school psychologist, during bus arrival time. Since then, I’ve responded to a multitude of crises, most recently the shooting in nearby Newtown. Collectively, these experiences are constant reminders that implementing the the 3 P’s — plan, prepare and practice — before tragedy strikes will set a strong foundation for our words and actions in the aftermath of a crisis.

Dwight D. Eisenhower once said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.” Plans are static and lack the flexibility necessary to manage the enormous complexities and unpredictable nature inherent to a crisis. I have seen a good many plans rendered useless because they fell short in anticipating the scope of a particular event.

Planning, on the other hand, is a dynamic process in which both short- and long-term strategy can be adjusted in response to any contingency. Remember that the goal of a response effort is to mitigate damage, regain control and re-establish security as quickly as possible. Command structure, assignment of responsibilities and communications are three priorities of planning.

Organizing an effective response begins with identifying the incident commander and determining how authority is to be delegated. A lack of coherency within the command structure confounds an already complicated situation at a time when leadership is needed most. Remember that during the critical initial hours following a crisis, time is of the essence and there is no point arguing over who’s in charge. I’ve witnessed the divisiveness of power plays firsthand. Not only do they add to already heightened stress levels, they also lead to mistakes that can be difficult, if not impossible, to correct.

Assigning responsibilities within the chain of command requires considerable thought about the professional and personal attributes of the individuals involved. Delegate responsibility carefully! Not everyone will respond as expected during a crisis, and it’s important to identify underlying issues that can weaken or break the chain before a crisis occurs, not after.

It is also important to plan for alternates. The first victims at Sandy Hook, the principal and school psychologist, were central to that school’s crisis team. Cross-training staff and assigning responsibility by teams rather than to a single individual builds in backup systems should key members be unable to assist. Also, don’t forget that staffing changes affect the command structure. Introducing new team members requires not only initial orientation for them but reorientation for current members, as well.


Additional Resources

Communication is integral to the overall effectiveness of a crisis response. It’s easiest to think of communications in two ways — internal and external.

Managing internal communication depends on having a reliable primary system with a secondary backup to disseminate critical updates as a crisis unfolds. I learned the hard way about the value of reliable communications during a statewide disaster drill when our team’s primary communication system failed. No secondary backup existed, so communication was ruptured.

External communication is all about the message and needs to be handled delicately. There is an undeniable need to keep the community informed as a situation unfolds, but saying the wrong thing at the wrong time can be disastrous. Because public relations is a specialty area, choosing the right spokesperson to manage external messaging makes all the difference in a recovery effort.

Considering crises vary in magnitude and meaning, circumstances may arise in which direct assistance from outside resources is necessary. Because work in a school environment is foreign to noneducators, choose a partner deliberately. Selecting the right partner helps avoid pitfalls that can hinder a response. One viable partnership to consider is the education service agency, which can provide a full range of assistance and do so while maintaining the integrity of the school district.

The extent of impact experienced in Newtown provides clear evidence that districts cannot afford to be shortsighted in preparing to manage the aftermath of a crisis. Given the number of priorities competing for attention in a district, however, an efficient use of time is to think big. While this may appear excessive, scaling down a prepared response is easier than improvising in the moment. As Rudy Giuliani, the former New York City mayor, stated, “[I]f you prepare for those challenges that you predict, you will be better equipped to handle all problems, even the unexpected ones.”

As strange as it may seem, a crisis of significant magnitude also means preparing for the generosity of others. Don’t underestimate the volume of community members, mental health providers, government agencies, and state and national organizations that will be clamoring to help. Managing these human resources can quickly turn into a logistical nightmare if done incorrectly.

Newtown was overwhelmed at first by the volume of unsolicited mental health providers offering assistance. The school district’s leadership confronted several problems needing quick resolutions.

First, a staging area was needed to validate credentials of those offering help. Then a system was created to coordinate and monitor the activities of these volunteers once they were cleared for duty. Finally, the approved volunteers needed places to work. Office space and parking for volunteers, as well as for those accessing the services, became premium commodities. To avoid getting snarled in a space crunch, you want to create safeguards to preserve your own room to work.

Second, a system is needed to manage charitable donations of both monetary and material goods. School districts generally are not in the business of handling large sums of money donations as was experienced in Newtown, so they will need help to properly account for and distribute these funds as well as to thwart any involvement by unscrupulous opportunists. Material donations also need full accounting, but unlike cash donations, material goods require storage space and manpower to move and inventory. In both cases, a pre-existing partnership with an outside resource will ease the logistical burden during an already stressful time.

A crisis is best characterized as helplessness in the face of intolerable danger. The activity that most empowers individuals in maintaining control is practice. School districts routinely conduct various practice drills throughout the school year. But different times now require changes in practice that add further dimension to the purpose and manner of these drills. Live and tabletop drills that more closely simulate actual crises not only provide valuable experience in reacting to a potentially life-threatening situation, they also help identify any underlying vulnerabilities.

Instead of adding to an already full plate, think creatively to balance readiness needs with other agendas competing for time. For example, some districts are now substituting “lockdown” drills with “active shooter” exercises coordinated with local law enforcement. One note of caution, however, when running simulation drills for the first time: Be ready to respond to claims that added realism may be too distressing for students and staff.

Lessons learned from past events can help. For instance, in the aftermath of the mass shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado, school communities vehemently opposed lockdown drills, arguing they would come across as too frightening and risky for students. Some suggested the drills be held without children present. Today, the practice of lockdown drills is an institutionalized procedure in schools.

Putting It All Together
A likely comparison can be made between responding to the aftermath of a crisis and running a marathon. Anyone who has done either will confirm that success requires not only meeting the physical demands but also the mental challenges.

Like the marathon, developing a school district’s response readiness requires logging in the miles. Done deliberately, the 3 P’s contribute to the economy of motion necessary to mitigate negative outcomes and manage the unpredictable nature of a crisis and its aftermath. You don’t want to get caught living with a false sense of security!

Michael Regan, former director of pupil services in Newtown, Conn., is director of special education at Cooperative Educational Services in Trumbull, Conn. E-mail: reganm@ces.k12.ct.us


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