Want Safer Schools? Make Safety Your Top Priority
Eighty percent of North Americans will experience violence in their lifetime. It could be a schoolyard fight, a domestic assault, or a random attack on the street. Part of my job is to equip kids to recognize violence at the earliest age possible. It's called situational awareness, and we should start teaching it in kindergarten. It's as fundamental a skill as crossing the street.
Despite the recent tragedy in Florida, schools have never been safer. But the Parkland shooting has definitely put the idea of safety front and center. It has opened up a national conversation about the best way to protect our kids. Gun violence is one of the most extreme emergencies that a school can face, but there are so many other crises that can occur.
Putting Safety and Security First
Public safety is an emotional issue. It moves with the ebb and flow of current events. There is a lot of commotion after a tragedy like the Parkland shooting. People ask for answers. They call their elected representatives and demand action. Usually, interest fades after a few weeks, but I deal with these issues 24/7, 365 days a year.
I've worked in safety and security for 32 years and at Lancaster-Lebanon Intermediate Unit 13 (IU13) for the last seven. IU13 is an education service agency. We provide support services to 22 school districts. These include intervention programs for students, workshops for teachers, and technical assistance for schools. We also serve the wider Lancaster-Lebanon community and provide consulting services and workforce training initiatives to local businesses and organizations.
For a couple of years, I was strictly IU13's safety and security manager. After an uptick in violence in our schools, we decided to adopt a new approach. As permitted by Pennsylvania law, we created our own police department and I was put in charge.
As chief, I oversee day-to-day police functions, but I still devote a good chunk of my time to safety and security. One thing I do is help schools and districts with their All-Hazards Plans. The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania mandates emergency preparedness documents that cover over 25 contingencies. Administrators must develop strategies that deal with everything from student violence to hurricanes.
I actually wrote my own All-Hazards Plan, which complied with Pennsylvania Department of Education and Department of Emergency Management norms. The plan led to NaviGate Prepared, the school preparedness software company, reaching out to me. They wanted to adopt my plan as part of the package they were building for Pennsylvania schools. The collaboration around my plan was the beginning of our partnership.
Since then, many of my districts have adopted NaviGate Prepared. They use the platform because administrators want their All-Hazards Plan and emergency materials on their smartphones and tablets. They can have what they need on their person at all times—it's not in a binder back at the office. The state of Pennsylvania requires all schools to keep such a binder on site. But let's be honest, in an emergency, are you going to run back to the office or will you use your smartphone?
NaviGate Prepared Is for Every Kind of Emergency
NaviGate Prepared is more than an emergency plan binder that fits in your pocket. It’s a comprehensive suite of tools that lets administrators plan for—and manage—any emergency or disruption.
The Safety Plans module uses a visual wizard to create FEMA- and state-compliant emergency plans. The Virtual Binders module lets you organize, update, and share your plans with a mouse click. The Flip Charts app puts step-by-step emergency instructions in the palms of teachers and staff.
But one of the most impressive functions is Interactive Maps and Floor Plans. It provides precious logistical support in an emergency. Staff and first responders can use the color-coded maps to plan an emergency response or evacuation. These diagrams display the locations of life-saving equipment, fire exits, evacuation sites, and staging areas.
There are also 360-degree photos of every room. You can pair this module with a school's security cameras to track an unfolding emergency. With a touch, you can monitor real-time footage of what's happening inside the school. From a logistical and tactical standpoint, the feature is invaluable.
Imagine there’s a purple cloud spewing out of the chemistry lab. Your teachers and staff are in the parking lot, making sure that all the students got out. Paramedics are treating kids for smoke inhalation. Firefighters are looking for ways to extinguish the blaze. That’s when these tools come in handy.
Nobody has time to run back to the office and grab a binder. NaviGate Prepared puts the right information into the right hands in an emergency situation. You push out exactly what your staff members need to perform their respective roles in a crisis. Teachers get one flip chart, with another one going to cafeteria staff. There's a third chart for school bus drivers. You get the picture.
Everything has to be crystal clear and easy to understand. In a crisis, your senses are overloaded. Your cognitive skills are pushed to their limits. It's easy to panic and freeze. NaviGate Prepared lays the processes and information out in a straightforward way. The software allows you to focus in the midst of chaos.
Emergencies You Don't Think About
When we talk about emergencies, we often think about extreme situations. Fires, explosions, and school shootings do happen—but they are rare. We also tend to focus on events that occur during school hours. But a school is more than a building. It is a community, and communities function around the clock.
A power failure is an emergency. What do you do with hundreds of students when the lights go out? Who do you call? Do you send them home if it happens in the middle of the day? How do you get the word out when the grid goes down overnight and is still down by the time first period is rolling around?
Another crisis that requires you to mobilize resources and plan a response is a student injury—or even death. I've gotten quite a few such calls late at night. Students who were in a crash coming home after a football game or were injured or killed after a late night of hanging out with friends.
The state of Pennsylvania has protocols that deal with such crises. With NaviGate Prepared, you can roll out of bed and look up "How do I deal with a serious student accident or death?" on your smartphone. You'll not only see what steps to take, but also who to call.
You'll need to contact psychologists and grief counsellors if it’s fatal. You may have to plan an assembly or a memorial service. Your teachers have to be briefed first thing in the morning, which is just a few hours from now. How are they going to talk to students about their loss? These are kids, after all, and death is a big deal.
On top of everything else, you have to be ready first thing in the morning on the next school day. You won't have time for anything but a quick onsite meeting before students arrive. With NaviGate Prepared, you activate resources and coordinate your team remotely. You can do this all with a laptop on your kitchen table in the middle of the night. You have to be ready, night and day.
Ensuring Buy-in Saves Lives
All-hazards and emergency planning can be daunting. Most schools don't have the resources to hire a specialist, so it falls on the shoulders of existing staff. Teachers and school administrators are educators above all. They are passionate about forming young minds, but planning or executing emergency responses might not be their specialty.
NaviGate Prepared helps overcome that obstacle because it’s so easy to use. The platform helps promote safety and security because schools don't have to start from scratch. As I said, my All-Hazards Plan is part of the package that NaviGate Prepared offers in Pennsylvania. It lays out the entire process and eliminates the fear of the unknown.
Part of being an educator is knowing how to learn. NaviGate Prepared makes learning how to assemble a comprehensive emergency plan a snap. From there, it's a matter of implementing the plan, drilling, and creating a safety and security curriculum for students.
Getting everybody on the same page helps save lives. As we saw in Florida, support staff sacrificed themselves so that children could live. Assistant football coach Aaron Feis and athletic Director Christopher Hixon put themselves in the line of fire during that tragic school shooting.
Staying Aware, Staying Safe
The key to dealing with emergencies is being aware of everything around you. People, especially children, need to learn situational awareness. Often, students’ attention is pulled elsewhere instead of their immediate surroundings. This can lead to an embarrassing moment like bumping into a street sign or a lamp post. It can also result in being hit by a car, or not realizing that a violent intruder is in the immediate vicinity.
Situational awareness training teaches kids to notice the world around them and to be alert. It’s an incredibly important piece of the safety puzzle. As adults, we’re responsible for the rest with our preparation and leadership. By keeping things under control, we help students stay calm in turn. The end result might be a successful fire drill, with all students accounted for. It could also be a prompt restoration of electricity after a power failure. Staying calm can also save lives, and help first responders coordinate a tactical response during a school shooting.
As IU13's Police Chief, I have to plan for a potential violent intruder situations. It goes with the job. NaviGate Prepared makes my job and other folks doing the same good work easier. It helps teachers, administrators, and staff map out emergency responses. The platform puts the information they need at their fingertips.
At the end of the day, it's all about the kids. IU13, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, and NaviGate Prepared help keep our students safe. I’m proud to be even one part of that mission.