Preparing for the Unthinkable: Schools Now Lead in Crisis Management and Communications

April 2, 2018

By Molly Congdon

How can this happen?

This is the question the nation asks each time another school shooting occurs. Across the country, as schools have become the front line in crisis management and communications, educators, parents and community leaders are asking another question: Are we prepared?Behan_Headshot_Molly-2_previewx.jpg

As threats and actual violence increase, there are best practices that many schools follow:

  • The first is to have an Emergency Operation Plan (EOP) in place. According to the National School Safety and Security Services, many schools created EOPs after the Columbine attack in April 1999. But many plans have not been practiced in years, are out of date and have information gaps.  These plans need to be regularly evaluated, refined, updated and exercised.
  • Test the plan first with a tabletop exercise— a small-group discussion that goes through a scenario with school officials and law enforcement leaders responding as they would during an actual event. Once a year, schedule a full-scale drill with school personnel, law enforcement and emergency responders. Test and evaluate the parental, community and media communications plan at the same time.

Notifying parents can be a dilemma, especially since their natural reaction is to protect their children from harm. But candid, real-time communication with parents, the community and the news media is essential. The best practice is to establish a well-known family reunification center where parents can safely gather to receive information while awaiting their children. The sooner children are reunited with their parents or caregivers, the less likely they are to exhibit traumatic stress.

At the same time, establish a media center (in a different location from the parent/family reunification center) where journalists can be briefed and media vehicles staged.

The family re-unification plan should include:

  • A proper gathering location or locations, one on campus and another off campus (often a nearby hotel, church or large municipal building), identified in advance and widely publicized to parents as the place to gather in a crisis;
  • Up-to-date emergency contact cards
  • Plan for necessary transportation
  • An established method to notify and communicate with parents
  • Up-to-date student rosters
  • Security
  • Supplies—including “evacuation kits”
  • Mental health crisis intervention
  • An established process for releasing students to parents and guardians

This should be practiced as part of the EOP table-top exercise and drills.

When developing the EOP:

  • Map out an evacuation plan and a lock-down plan for students, staff and visitors.
  • Have a secondary plan if the primary evacuation route isn’t accessible.
  • Select advantageous shelter-in-place locations that have thick walls, solid doors with locks, minimal interior windows, first-aid emergency kits, communication devices and duress alarms.
  • Establish a way to alert the school community, including those with language barriers, that there is an active shooter on the grounds by using sounds, lights or text.
  • Identify and train school officials responsible for providing information to families, especially those who must advise parents when a child is missing, injured or has been killed. Ensure that mental health counselors are on hand.


A social media emergency communications plan is just as important as the EOP. Parents are more likely to turn immediately to social media for information than to the school website or news media.

Of course, social media also come with their own set of challenges, but a social media strategy—overseen by senior school district official working with pre-approved messages—can provide clarity and instill calm and confidence.


When preparing for the worst, schools can make parents feel more secure by publicizing emergency training and communications plans.

Involving the community in the conversation will not only broaden community awareness but lower the level of anxiety and, some experts believe may reduce the likelihood of violent events as a whole.

One way to prepare both faculty and students is ALICE (Alert, Lockdown, Inform, Counter, Evacuate) Training, the number-one active shooter civilian response training that provides tactics on how to handle the threat of an active shooter.

The community conversation also involves parents and teachers talking to students about warning signs and educating them about what qualifies as questionable behavior. The National School Safety Center has created a checklist of characteristics attained from tracking school-associated homicides since 1992:

  • An extremely violent temper
  • Previously has brought a weapon to school
  • Tends to have disciplinary issues
  • Has been expelled or suspended from school
  • Lacks a solid family background and supervision
  • Enjoys violence in media
  • Displays cruel behavior toward animals
  • Exists on the fringe, having few to no friends
  • Seems depressed or suicidal

Increasing classroom security is also a critical defensive maneuver. Most schools have teachers lock classroom doors before the beginning of each period. Many classroom doors only lock from the outside, which has resulted in teachers being wounded or killed when they go to secure the room during an incident.

A Wisconsin high school student, Justin Rivard, recently invented an ingenious tool that he dubbed the “JustinKase” in shop class. His device, made of steel plates and connecting rods, slides underneath a classroom door and latches to the door’s jam. USA Today quoted Justin: “You can lock a door with a lock, it can get shot out. You can lock a door with this, it can’t get shot out. You can’t get around it.”

In 2013, a company called Fighting Chance Solutions was formed and the team created “The Sleeve,” which is a cover made out of 12-gauge carbon steel that slides over the arm of a door closer and is capable of withstanding more than 550 pounds of external force.

In this age of worry and violence, it is the job not only of educators but of parents and  community leaders as well to plan for the worst. That way when parents ask, “Is the school safe?” The response will be, “We are prepared and are doing everything we can to protect the children.”

Molly Congdon is a writer for Behan Communications. Our firm provides strategic guidance to schools, businesses and non-profits on crisis management and communications.

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