It is hard to say anything “good” about a school shooting. We all know there is nothing truly good about another shooting at a school.
As someone who has spent 25+ years of my life training and consulting with educators and first responders to develop meaningful crisis plans, it is in my DNA to first think about the physical and mental health of the victims, their families, and the school community. Then I immediately begin looking at how school and police officials responded, what they did well, and what I can learn to better help the many other schools we work with to strengthen their safety prevention, security, and crisis preparedness plans.
Bad Things Happen To Good People – Sometimes Twice
This afternoon’s shooting at Deer Creek Middle School in Littleton, Colorado, reminded me of what I have seen in other school districts my colleagues and I have worked after a school safety crisis: Bad things happen to good people.
The Deer Creek Middle School digs a bit deeper into my heart, though, as the school is reported to be just down the road from Columbine High School. It is a part of the Jefferson County (JeffCo) Public School District, which had more than its lifetime share of tragedy a decade ago at Columbine.
Sadly, I now must say, “Bad things can happen to good people — twice.”
Textbook School Emergency Response
I have been impressed watching the “textbook response” by JeffCo school and law enforcment officials as I watched live streaming TV interviews as the aftermath unfolded. “Textbook response” means the actions taken are right out of the book of best practices for preparing for, and responding to, a school crisis. (Yes, it is a rather sad statement to say we have to have “textbook” responses for school shootings, but unfortunately this is a reality of our society.)
Some of the best practices I watched unfold today include:
- Dr. David Benke, a math teacher at Deer Creek Middle School, became the latest of America’s educators who tackled an armed gunman to protect his children. A bus driver and others reportedly held the suspect until police arrived. (God Bless them!) Teachers and others have repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way without thinking twice in so many of these incidents.
- Teachers and school staff were on-duty supervising children at dismissal. “Good thing were were out on parking lot duty,” Dr. Benke was quoted as saying to local reporters. As we preach in our school safety training sessions for educators, “Supervision, supervision, supervision!”
- Jeffco school and sheriff’s department public information officers were highly visible and highly communicative to get accurate information and updates out to the media, parents, etc.
- Jeffco schools embraced social media (Twitter), to provide continual updates for parents and the media. See @JeffcoSchoolsCo Nationwide, school administrators have some catching-up to do in using these tools proactively and reactively on school safety issues.
- Jeffco Schools’ main web site and Deer Creek Middle School’s web site both had information posted in a timely manner on the incident and next steps (schools closed, counselors available, etc.).
- Law enforcement praised school officials for being prepared and having an effective response. Jeffco Schools indicated several times that they have plans, teachers and students are trained, and drills are conducted.
- Core elements of school emergency planning were evident early-on: Lockdown procedures, designated evacuation sites, mass parent notification capabilities, parent-student reunification procedures, engagement of mental health support services, media and parent communications, and more.
More things that worked will become evident in the upcoming hours and days. And there will be questions and perhaps some things which did not work as well as people would have preferred, as there always are in these types of incidents.
I always say that parents will forgive school officials if their school’s test scores go down. Parents are much less forgiving, however, if something happens to their children which could have been prevented and/or better managed with greater preparedness efforts.
Some may say JeffCo should have nothing less than stellar preparedness plans given their experience a decade ago with the Columbine attack. Perhaps there is some validity with this perspective, but in my 25 years of working in education, I have learned that what seems logical is not always the case.
JeffCo’s preparedness efforts have, in just short hours after the incident, generated parental support and confidence.
Lisa Gibson (Twitter @lgibsonwriting) is the mother of a student at Deer Creek Middle School. Just hours after the incident, she was praising Deer Creek’s response on Twitter.
Lisa also wrote a blog post commending the school entitled, “In Praise of Deer Creek Middle School.”
Kudos to Lisa for caring about her son and their school-community, and for taking a lead in communicating her support for the good work by school leaders.
The bottom line: Preparedness pays off. It saves lives. And it increases parental confidence.
Update 3/11/10: A Denver Post story (Deer Creek parents are promised a review of shooting response) indicated changes coming from an initial review of the shooting will include, “Other changes include a full-time security officer to check on those coming onto campus, security cameras, emergency training for bus drivers and, possibly, text messages to inform any teachers trapped in classrooms.”
Interesting questions remain on what the suspect did in the school prior to the shooting. I raise some of those in connection with my broader post on school access and visitors entitled, “A Stranger is in Your School: Does Anyone Know What to Do?”
The story also indicated questions about the release of elementary students from Stony Creek Elementary School, the evacuation site for Deer Creek Middle School, will be reviewed in response to parent concerns about elementary students being released while evacuees were arriving. It appears from the Denver Post story that Stony Creek Elementary Schools released their students to go home at the same time Deer Creek Middle School evacuees were headed to Stony Creek, which is their designated evacuation and parent-student reunification site.
One major challenge for both Deer Creek and Stony Creek appears to be that the shooting incident occurred around school dismissal time for these schools. This is a time when even the best of schools in emergency planning typically have not adequately practiced crisis drills.
This is a good “lesson learned” for other schools around the country looking at their emergency plans. Schools typically conduct lockdown, evacuation, fire, and other drills when it is convenient for the adults and least inconvenient for overall school operations. In other words, they avoid conducting drills during lunch periods, at student arrival and dismissal, during class change, and at other inconvenient times of the school day.
The result is that schools end up drilling for convenience, rather than reality. Emergencies do not occur at times when it is most convenient for school administrators and staff. In fact, they tend to occur when it is least convenient and most challenging to manage.
Lesson learned for all schools: Diversify your school emergency planning drills. Start out with a basic drill but make subsequent drills more complex and challenging. Drill during student arrival and dismissal, between class changes, and during lunch periods.
Prepare for reality, not for convenience.
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photo credit: Jefferson County (CO) Public Schools, Deer Creek Middle School web site