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SALT LAKE CITY -- The Institute of Education Sciences puts the number of public school students at over 48 million nationally. The Utah State Office of Education has the number of K12 students in the state at more than 550,000 in nearly 1,100 schools. Given the numbers, the chance of some kind of an emergency happening somewhere at a school in Utah goes from likelihood to a near certainty.
The high profile nature of recent school violence incidents in such places as Nickel Mines, Pa., Paducah, Ky., and of course Columbine, Colo., has understandably given rise to concern for parents. The reality is that violence is just one of the concerns for parents and school officials. Much more likely are such things as severe weather, power loss, gas leaks and a large number of other man-made and natural events that can affect your school. The recent high winds in Davis County are a prime example. Had this happened during the school day, students and schools would have been strongly impacted.
The question now becomes, “What should parents do? ” The answer is, talk with your school. The answers to the following four questions are the minimum information that every parent should have.
Does the school have a current Emergency Operations Plan (EOP)?
Every school should have an Emergency Operations Plan; the key to this question is the word current. The Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends that school EOP’s be reviewed and updated annually. Changes in school staff and the neighborhood can affect the plans effectiveness. A new road or housing development may impact evacuation routes. Staff changes may change key roles in the plan. The most effective EOPs are reviewed and current; ask when Your school's EOP was last reviewed.
Does the staff know and are they trained on the plan?
The best plan in the world sitting on the shelf is worthless. Like any team, a school staff should practice the game plan. The FEMA recommendations for schools list training and exercise as a key component in the school safety process. Even more drills are an indicator of how seriously a school takes your child’s safety. If your school invests the time to drill, student safety is a priority. Ask about the number and types of training and drills at your school.
How will I be informed?
Your school should have in place a well-defined process to notify parents in the case of an incident in or at the school. Should something happen at your child’s school, misinformation will run wild. The Texas School Safety Center notes that it is incumbent on the school to provide parents accurate, timely information during any school based emergancy. Ask what the communication process from your school will be.
What is my part?
The school will have expectations of you, find out what they are. Immediately running to the school, likely your first impulse, along with 500 other parents could make the situation worse and may endanger students as well as yourself. Student safety will be the highest priority for school staff and first responders in any school emergency. Understanding and being willing to follow the school's procedures will help lower the stress level in an already high stress situation. Ask what your school expects you to do.
Communication with your school is the key. Most schools are eager to help parents understand their emergency procedures. Simply ask the questions. And if your school is not eager then that will tell you something as well. For more information on school safety, you can go the FEMA web site.
Guy is a longtime educator, having taught history, math and swimming, and coached tennis and swimming. He is school safety and security administrator for an Idaho school district. Guy has been married for 26 years and has three children.