About The Resilience Institute

The Resilience Institute is part of WWU Huxley’s College of the Environment. It facilitates scholarship, education, and practice on reducing social and physical vulnerability through sustainable community development, as a way to minimize loss and enhance recovery from disasters in Washington State and its interdependent global communities.

Thursday, April 17, 2008

Emergency planning in our schools

Over the last week, I have been in Los Angeles talking with school administrators about emergency plans. This is in preparation for the largest earthquake drill California has ever done - the Great Southern California ShakeOut scheduled for November 13, 2008. In the process I have been inducted into some of the real-world headaches of school emergency planning.

At the Team Safe-T office, a non-profit organization helping to create education material on safety, emegency preparedness and social responsibility, I learned of the hazards of doing earthquake drills....not the hazards of a real earthquake, but the hazards of the drill.

Every time there is a fire drill or earthquake drill, the students file out of the building. In some inner city LA schools, some students go to the designated field and are accounted for. Others just disappear- and get in trouble. Following the drill, teachers cannot account for all of their students. The number of hall fights and vandalism goes up that day. Police report increased gang violence on the days schools do such drills.

Fire and earthquake drills are mandated by the state of California, yet so is keeping students in school and learning. Its a tough call and some school administrators have chosen to stop doing drills. This does not bode well for an actual emergency. Students and staff will be unprepared and unpracticed. Moreover, what is occuring in drills may very well indicate major issues that could arise in a real emergency. Following a major earthquake, staff charged with accounting for students and searching for injured and unaccounted students may be looking for students who have left the premises all together. Looting may also be an intensified issue if students take off after the shaking subsides. I also do not envy the school administrators facing anxious parents and telling them then have no idea where their kids are.

In other conversations, I heard about issues of special needs kids. Students on life-saving medication may not have extra supplies to last until their parents can re-unify with them. Nor may staff have the authority to administer needed medications, even if it was on the premises.

Finally, I read a recent new report out of Florida where post-hurricane building code improvements for schools is interfering with police radios. You can look at the article yourself here. Hurricane-resistant concrete walls are so thick they block police radios and have led to difficulties in on-premise police calling for back-up when dealing with security issues.

There are obviously a lot of questions to ask about how to better address the underlying causes of school violence and how to address the needs of disabled students. Those larger questions aside, I was reminded of the vast difference between clear-cut emergency plans on paper and the complicated reality that occurs when they are implemented.

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