There are many more questions than answers about the shooting that took the lives of 20 kids and six administrators at Sandy Hook Elementary School on Dec. 14. But in general schools and businesses can and should examine their emergency plans and how they would respond, not only during a shooting, but also during various potential hazards.
Emergency plans should be for all hazards, not just for an active shooter situation and should include trainings that incorporate everyone associated with that school or business, according to Bo Mitchell of 911 Consulting.
“The chilling fact is it’s happened before and it will happen again,” Mitchell said. “One danger here is that we always prepare for the last crisis, so we are all preparing for Hurricane Sandy and the Newtown, Conn., massacre. Both are devastating, but employers have to prepare for all hazards — bomb threats, suspicious packages, bullying at work and bullying at school are examples.”
Mitchell said schools are employers first and most employers, including schools, are not well prepared. “For every one organization that is well planned and trained and exercised, there are 10 that are not,” he said. “Every employee has a legal right to review their employers’ emergency plan. That’s federal law.”
Mitchell said schools and businesses all have the same problem: they think they are well prepared but they’re not. He says there is ample research, done by the Government Accountability Office, the National Association of School Resource Officers and other national organizations that point to a lack of preparedness for K-12 schools and businesses.
The research shows that most schools have paperwork they call a plan but it’s not all hazards and they don’t train all their employees as required by federal law. “They’ll train “the team” but they don’t train all employees and for emergency purposes that’s the contractors, the cafeteria staff, the security people and grandma who volunteers in the gift shop,” Mitchell said.
“They should train coaches, temps, volunteers, everyone because when something goes wrong all those people will be considered employees at court, even if they didn’t get a paycheck.”
Mitchell said research indicates that schools aren’t well prepared because they don’t exercise. “Table top exercises, full-scale exercises done with and without emergency services in concert. Both are great and more is better and they aren’t doing it,” he said. “Some of this is ‘Oh, we’ll scare the children or we’ll scare the parents.’ That’s bull. Locking down a school is very difficult, but that doesn’t alleviate your responsibility to do that.”
Every school principal will answer in the affirmative when asked if his/her school has a disaster plan. But is that plan being exercised or is it “on the shelf?”
“A lot of it is on the shelf, a lot of it isn’t all hazards, a lot of it isn’t trained,” Mitchell said. “OHSA [the Occupational Safety and Health Administration} says school is a workplace. It says before you’re a school, you’re a workplace and every employee shall be trained in emergency planning, annually in a classroom. This is not happening on a wide spectrum from Maine to California.”
The reasons vary, from lack of education, to politics to denial and of course, a lack of resources.
The feeling that “it won’t happen to us” is ubiquitous in the U.S., including schools and businesses. Couple that with the fact that school administrators aren’t emergency managers and parents of students going to those schools may not know what questions to ask those administrators about emergency plans and it equals lack of preparation.
“Public schools tend to turn to their police chiefs and fire chiefs, which is all well and good but they’re busy people and if all schools showed up at the police and fire departments, the system would collapse,” Mitchell said.
He also said politics play a role in that police and fire aren’t going to go to parents because they’d be going over the heads of boards of education. And boards of education are reluctant to turn to parents because they’re busy running schools and taking on security too is a daunting thought.
Mitchell said parents should ask school administrators if they have a plan, if it’s all hazards, if it conforms to the National Fire Protection Association 1600 Standard on Disaster/Emergency Management and Business Continuity Programs, and have they trained it annually in a classroom and have you trained enough people, including the grandma in the gift shop.
Mitchell said that as time goes on we’ll probably be looking at Sandy Hook as a school that was well prepared and look at the administrators who lost their lives as heroes. School administrators ran toward the gunman as they heard shots and teachers hid students while leaving themselves vulnerable.
“I have a feeling we’re going to find out they were well trained and well exercised and those six women who died were heroes,” he said. “They knew what to do and in so doing probably kept this from getting a lot worse, which is very cold comfort to those 20 kids who died.”