Updated from original post in October 2013.
School lockdowns have been reported more and more over the last decade, many of which clearly demonstrate the critical need for emergency preparation and communications. With such devastating examples as Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida in 2018, Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut in 2012, Virginia Tech College in 2005, Columbine High School in 1999, and the École Polytechnique tragedy in 1989, we have unfortunately seen all levels of schools impacted by this horrific type of crisis.
However, school lockdowns can occur for many reasons, not just these worst-nightmare situations. Whether it is a safety issue like a police situation in the surrounding community, extreme weather or downed power lines around the school making it unsafe to evacuate, there are times where keeping students and staff indoors is the best choice for all. But no matter the reason behind a lockdown, solidifying processes across staff, students and parents is critical to ensuring the greatest safety and protection for everyone impacted.
Kirsten Koppang-Telford, President, C.O.O and Co-Founder of ePACT, attended the 10th Annual Summit on Emergency and Disaster Planning for Schools in 2013, and sat on a panel to discuss the state of school lockdown protocols. Summit participants found it incredibly emotional to hear stories from schools or individuals who have first-hand experience of lockdowns involving an assailant. As emotional as it was, they all stressed the importance of wanting others to learn from their experiences, identifying what helped and what needs to improve. Here are some of the notable points that came out of the panel discussion for improving preparedness efforts to keep students and staff safe.
Knowing what to do: Having emergency plans in place and practicing processes across students, staff and families has been shown to make a significant difference in emergencies. Many schools do regular fire or earthquake drills, and preparing for a lockdown should be no different.
The Sandy Hook tragedy was heartbreaking in every way, yet it was clear at the Summit that many more could have been affected that tragic day last December. Fortunately, the school had practiced a lockdown drill only a month beforehand, helping staff and students better understand what to do in such a terrifying and stressful situation. This drill potentially saved many more lives as those in the school were able to act more quickly and effectively to stay safe.
Accessing medical information: During the 2012 high school shooting and lockdown at Chardon High School, local emergency personnel were unable to access emergency information for the victims. With this, they were forced to use the victims’ cell phones to contact family members for critical medical information because time was of the essence. Thankfully, the paramedics were able to retrieve this information from family and friends, but this example demonstrates the importance of up to date medical details in a crisis. Information on allergies, medications, and special conditions need to be readily available and collected proactively, rather than as a reactive process when needed urgently in an emergency. When submitting information to schools, families should always ensure student’s medical information is provided, is complete and remains up to date throughout the year.
Communication plans are essential: One of the biggest gaps in crises is not having a communications plan in place. School lockdowns can be a frightening experience, and for those inside, reaching people on the outside for help is crucial, just as parents on the outside are trying to contact the school for updates. In many school lockdowns, school administrators are instructed to phone the school district, who would then manage sending out communications to families. However, in crises that have impacted large numbers in a community, phone lines are often flooded. This is what occurred for Sandy Hook, Chardon and Columbine, so students’ families did not have updates on the situation.
Ongoing, timely communications are key to keeping friends and family up to date during a crisis, and this needs to be part of crisis communication plans. When parents are unsure of a situation, it is natural for them to want to race to the school to get answers and see their children. If the school is under lockdown, no child will be released until authorities have cleared the building and deemed it is safe to do so. Parents rushing to the scene are only putting themselves in danger and can disrupt emergency services while trying to retrieve information. As tough as it is, staying back and in a safe place is essential until authorities say it is okay to do otherwise. Having a system in place that allows parents to stay up-to-date – without relying on or overloading phone lines – should be part of the overall plan.
Avoid direct contact via mobile phones: Today, many students have their own cell phones, yet students and their families need to understand the importance of avoiding direct contact in a lockdown. This is extremely difficult to do, given the first thing anyone wants to do is reach out to their family, however consider the following:
- When using a cell phone for texting, posting to social media or calls, a student or staff may highlight their location to an intruder, through the noise or light of their phone. If another student or staff member is hiding, you may highlight their location if you attempt to communicate with them as their phone rings or lights up;
- There are many examples of student’s misunderstanding information or spreading false details which cause greater panic for other students, staff and families. This includes students hearing a loud bang and texting others about shots being fired when in fact, no gun was present, or posting misinformation on social media that spread to news agencies/across communities;
- The spread of information from non-official sources can easily draw more people to the school, putting them in harm’s way while impacting emergency personnel’s ability to support the situation.
School lockdowns can absolutely be a scary topic to cover. For many, it is worse than fire, flood or even earthquake preparedness discussions, given the images and stories that have been shown in the media. However, emergency preparedness plays a crucial role in student and staff safety in schools, no matter the crisis. Engaging everyone in emergency management and lockdown training is extremely important, and can help all parties better respond, potentially saving lives and minimizing the possibility of injury, physical or emotional harm.
ePACT was specifically created to help families and schools better prepare and respond to crises, ensuring access to critical information and communication tools no matter the emergency. We wish we could prevent all disasters from happening, but unfortunately, we cannot. However, we want to help every school and family better prepare, have greater support and ensure faster family reunification in any emergency. ePACT is free for families to create their single emergency record, and any school/school district can use the system to better connect, share information and communicate across their community.
ePACT is the single emergency record and support network for families, and the emergency preparedness and response standard for organizations. By leveraging the power of online networking, ePACT brings organizations and families together to share critical information, plan collectively and communicate before, during and after any emergency. Sign up today to better connect and protect your family and organization through any crisis!
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