Ready When You Aren’t: Will Your School Safety Plan Hold Up When Disaster Strikes?

Navigate Prepared

You never think a catastrophe will happen to you—in your district, in your rural area—but it can. You always read about it taking place somewhere else, until, one day, it’s your town, your school that’s on the front page of the news.

Today, I travel around Tennessee as part of TOSS—the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents—creating professional learning opportunities that help principals bridge policy and practice. A big part of our mission is around school safety.

This role, however, wasn’t something I had mapped out in my career path, but on a seemingly normal, sunny day in May of 1998, everything changed. It was the last day of regular classes at my little rural high school, and a boy I knew well—I had been his guidance counselor during his junior year and then his teacher the following year—drove home, got a gun, came back to school and killed another student. 

I spent the next year trying to figure out why this happened, and even worked with the Justice Department and the FBI, digging through case studies and every other piece of research I could get my hands on, desperately trying to understand how this could have happened at my school. Then, the next year the Columbine tragedy occurred, and violence was thrust into every living room in the country and around the world.  

Those horrible events had a major impact on my career and my life. But, because of that experience, I’m now in a position to help others prepare. 

A Safety Plan Gone Wrong

I became obsessed with safety research after the shooting. And it came in handy, because it wasn’t the last emergency I faced. The next was a fire at one of my schools. 

I was on my way to a district superintendents’ meeting when I got a phone call from a school principal. “Doctor Shelton, the building’s on fire,” he said. He told me black smoke was billowing from the roof and windows of the building, but he’d evacuated the kids. However, he wasn’t sure everyone had made it out.

It’s a call you never want to get.

I pulled over to the side of the road and made sure he’d called 9-1-1. He was supposed to go to a predetermined spot and wait for the fire department, based on a plan we had formulated in advance. He had to take a box with him that contained the student roll for the entire school. Then, he was supposed to stand next to the firemen while they put out the fire.

Geography won’t save you from disaster. School emergencies can happen anywhere. @NaviGatePrepare

It turned out a new student, who had been at the school for less than a week, had set fire to the bathroom. The damage was limited to that space, and we were able to clean up over the weekend and resume classes the following Monday.

When we got to the recovery and debriefing process, the principal admitted he didn’t follow the plan. "I didn't stay where I was supposed to,” he said. "The hardest thing I've ever done is stand in that spot, so people would know where I was, when I wasn't sure where my kids were.”

"I didn't trust that process,” he explained.

I realized our fire drills had only occurred at scheduled intervals, when he was completely aware and in control. But emergencies aren’t planned, and we needed to have surprise drills. 

I learned from the experience that things can—and will—go wrong in a crisis. People may not be where we need them to be. Equipment may fail. My transportation supervisor was off getting a bus repaired. My maintenance supervisor was 18 miles away. The batteries in some of the walkie-talkies used for safety communication were dead—we’d forgotten to replace them as scheduled.

We had an excellent plan in place, but we found there was still a lot of room for improvement. That’s why you need to debrief. You need to learn from your mistakes for the next time.

Stick to the Plan

Another mistake I’ve found myself falling victim to is not knowing when to step back. 

When one of our schools was struck by an F3 tornado, 42 of the 49 classrooms were destroyed. But when disaster struck, we had a plan, and everyone knew what to do when they showed up at the site the next day at five in the morning. We rebuilt the school in next to no time. The students and teachers were back in that building three-and-a-half months later.

This quick turnaround didn’t happen because I was the one hammering nails or pouring concrete. We were able to get the school up and running again because I knew how to trust my plan and step back. One person can’t do everything. Everyone had a job, and we all trusted the process. 

Finding a Better System

No one would ask for the experiences I’ve had. But they happened, and I’m more knowledgeable because of that fact. Now, I can help others make sure that when the worst happens, they know what to do. 

One major way I’ve been able to revamp the security of our schools is because of NaviGate Prepared. I first encountered NaviGate Prepared a couple of years ago when I was in a meeting with some people from the State Department, as well as some of my staff. What I saw was amazing. Everyone had every tool they needed in one location. The safety procedures we had to reinvent every year was now in one place.

A safety drill is worthless unless you learn from it.

Take something like a student roster. The school secretary may know where to find it, but if all the responsible people don’t know exactly where it is, other staff members may not be able to retrieve it when an alarm goes off. But the problem doesn’t exist with NaviGate Prepared, because it’s right on their iPad. 

Another often overlooked issue is printing costs. We had to reprint the safety plan every time somebody’s cell phone number or e-mail address changed. We printed these little flip charts that my administrative employees could look at in an emergency. We kept them in every classroom and in everyone’s glove compartment, but we had to redo them a couple of times a year to keep them current.

NaviGate Prepared has a virtual flipchart that personnel carry on their smartphones and tablets. When something changes, we update the information on the school’s computer and it goes out to everyone’s app. I find this process amazingly convenient.

It also makes it easier to manage the entire safety process. You plan, drill, comment, recover, and do it all again. When a new principal or superintendent comes in, they can see the plans that are already in place, learn who’s in charge, and examine logs of previous drills or emergencies. This system may not sound complicated in 2017, but before NaviGate Prepared, all that information was in physical binders and it wasn’t easy to keep everything current, and to make sure new leaders had easy access to the information they needed.

Working the Plan Every Day

What I really want to help people understand is that you have to work your safety plan constantly. It’s too late if the first time you’ve used it is when an emergency takes place. You have to prepare for when bad things happen. I’ve had principals say to me, “This won’t happen to us; we’re too rural.” But geography will not save you from tragedy. I know that better than anyone.

NaviGate Prepared puts all the information we need at our fingertips. It helps us with our system-wide safety planning, but it has also changed the way we conduct drills. A superintendent can walk into a school and hand a card to an English teacher that says, “This is the drill we’re going to do at 12:00 today.” It’s scary because it’s lunchtime and the kids aren’t in the controlled environment of a classroom. More importantly, the principal doesn’t know what’s about to happen, but can follow everything on a laptop or an iPhone after the alarm bell sounds.

By incorporating the element of surprise into our drills, we allow our principals to experience the feeling of not being in complete control of a situation. But the ease with which they can track things in NaviGate Prepared compensates for this. Hopefully, these tools, and the real-time information they provide, will make them less likely to panic in the event of an actual emergency.

A safety plan ≠ safety. Constantly work your plan to make sure you’re actually prepared.

But what’s even more important than the drill is the follow-up conversation. This is where real progress is made. A bomb threat drill is a good example because it’s unique. The police and local emergency management authorities may take away some of the powers you have in other crises. If you don’t follow your drills with a discussion that also involves your police chief and school system, you may not have all the information you need to remain calm, and move the children to safety should the real thing occur.

It’s really simple: If you don’t work it every day, you won’t be ready when the time comes.

Getting Everyone Involved

One final point that is incredibly important is to get everyone involved. Far too often, safety plans are only about principals, superintendents, and other school leaders. But when there’s an emergency, it should be all hands on deck. Your janitor, your cafeteria staff, your school secretary—every staff member who walks into the building needs to know something about your safety plan. They all need to know they’re appreciated and needed.

It all comes down to information. You need to find a way to get the right information, to the right people, at the right time. Now, our schools are equipped with what they need to keep students safe. That preparation is important because the worst can happen—when you least expect it and when you’re least ready. So when disaster strikes, how will you strike back?