Hurricane Katrina: School Safety and Emergency Planning

National School Safety and Security Services offers its thoughts, prayers, and support to the communities devastated by Hurricane Katrina.  Our hearts are especially with the young children and school officials whose lives have been turned upside down by this disaster. We know that America’s strength, courage, and humanity will shine through for a successful recovery for our teachers and school support staff, and most of all, for our children.

Mental Health and Educational Support Resources
Immediate and Long-Term Issues for Relocated Students & Schools
Emergency Preparedness Lessons Learned and Reinforced

Mental Health and Educational Support Resources

School officials, parents, and others needing resources on mental health and educational support issues associated with children and hurricane disasters, trauma, and post-crisis support are encouraged to visit the following website locations:

National Association of School Psychologists:  Information for Parents and Educators on Response to Hurricane Katrina

American Red Cross – Talking Points for Educators: In the Aftermath of a Hurricane

The National Child Traumatic Stress Network:  Hurricane Katrina Tools and Links

UCLA School Mental Health Project: Center for Mental Health in Schools

The Educational Rights of Students in Homeless Situations: What Service Providers Should Know (.pdf file format download, two-pages)

Immediate and Long-Term Issues for Relocated Students & SchoolsNational School Safety and Security Services continues to identify a number of serious short-term and long-term issues that must be addressed in a thorough and comprehensive manner in order for schools and children to experience the best possible management of what will be a long and difficult recovery.

Issues to consider include:

  • Schools taking in students relocated because of Hurricane Katrina must be equipped not only for short-term mental health responses, but also prepared for the long-term psychological issues associated with relocated students evacuated from cities struck by Hurricane Katrina. It is reasonable to expect potential increased aggression and behavioral issues in schools taking in many relocated students, especially if relocated children have undiagnosed and/or untreated mental health issues.
  • Educators and safety officials in Florida have reported experiencing a spike in child abuse and domestic violence cases following the Florida hurricanes.  It is foreseeable that similar risks, except on a greater scale, could occur with some individuals who were victims of Hurricane Katrina.  It is reasonable to expect that increased aggression, acting out behavior, interpersonal conflicts and violence, and related negative behaviors will manifest themselves in children in school settings.
  • Security and school-based policing (school police, School Resource Officers, etc.) staffing, deployment, and related plans should be reviewed in schools and districts experiencing a large influx of relocated students from impacted cities.
  • Schools experiencing a significant influx of relocated students may also face overcrowding.  Many southern U.S. schools are already overcrowded and students are being housed in limited space facilities, oftentimes in schools with many portable/mobile classroom trailers. Steps for heightened adult supervision and security should be considered in such facilities as overcrowding can lead to increased interpersonal conflicts.
  • There will be significant financial implications for both the school districts taking in evacuated children and, of course, those school districts which have experienced damage from Hurricane Katrina.  Unfortunately, it is not unforeseeable to anticipate future continued discrepancies and conflicts across the various levels of government (local, state, and federal) in the recovery process.  This can especially be expected around issues associated with financial reimbursement and recovery support.
  • Funding shortages for impacted schools could have adverse implications on safety and overall school operations by creating inadequate adult staffing and supervision, school security and school-based policing personnel shortages, overcrowding, lack of mental health and related intervention services in schools, and related conditions.
  • Significant time and financial resources will be required for rebuilding school facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina.  While schools need to be rebuilt in a timely manner, they should also be built with safety in mind.  This not only includes safety from the perspective of heightened protection from future natural disasters, but also should include new school facility designs with Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED) and other school safety measures built in from the on-set.

Emergency Preparedness Lessons Learned and Reinforced

National School Safety and Security Services has been actively reviewing the “lessons learned” and perhaps better stated, “lessons reinforced,” by Hurricane Katrina related to school emergency planning.  Many of these issues have been discussed in our nationwide training sessions for many years. We have to acknowledge, however, that a disaster the size of Katrina can be of such magnitude that even the best of school and community emergency plans will not “fit” the given circumstances at hand.

Katrina does, however, cause us to remind school officials and their public safety partners of a number of issues relevant to school emergency preparedness including, but not limited to:

1) School emergency/crisis officials need to have relationships with local emergency management and public safety officials, as well as a “seat” at local emergency operations centers, far before any given emergency actually strikes.
2) Schools in “safe” areas being used as disaster recovery centers remind us of the importance of knowing which schools in our districts are designated as emergency shelters and how the use of these facilities as such would impact school operations.  Post-disaster staffing, security, policing, and emergency guidelines for shelters should be established.  Remember that police and other public safety officials, even normally assigned School Resource Officers (SROs), may be pulled away from their regular school assignments to deal with the unfolding emergency and recovery in the broader community.
3) School districts should have plans for school buses being used to assist in broader community evacuations.  For buses that remain in operation for the schools, does your plan address fuel needs?  Do school plans identify who is qualified and capable of driving school buses if regular drivers are not available? How would you mobilize buses in a major community emergency?  What role do buses have in emergency management for cities and counties?  What happens if public safety and emergency management officials commandeer your buses?  How would an emergency impact gas supplies?  Who could and would be able to drive school buses if regular drivers were not available?
4) Schools should have mechanisms in their plans for mass mobilization of mental health support services and how these services would be used in reestablishing normalcy and support upon the return of children to schools after an emergency.
5) School districts should have mechanisms in place for recording financial costs associated with recovery from a major emergency in order to possibly pursue reimbursement from federal and other governmental sources.
6) Schools should have emergency contact information for students and staff accessible off-site from a remote location following an emergency.7) Build multiple layers of leadership and back-up contingency plans for crisis team members into our plans.  Key players on your crisis team may be directly impacted by the emergency and unable to lead the response efforts.8) Emergency plans should include guidelines for family reunification procedures.

9) Plan on how to manage donations and volunteers in the event of an emergency.  Where will donations be stored? How will they be inventoried and disseminated?  Who will coordinate volunteers?  These two areas are often overlooked but are very legitimate concerns to manage following a major emergency.

10) How will school employees be paid following a disaster? Are back-up plans in place for direct deposits, paycheck issuance, etc.?

11) Most important above all other issues: Have plans and back-up plans for communications during and after an emergency.  Every school emergency, whether a natural disaster or manmade act of violence, has taught us that the biggest problems always arise around communications, communications, and communications!  A bit of redundancy is emergency communications preparedness planning is not a bad thing.
We must continue to look at Katrina’s lessons from at least three angles:1) What happened that reinforces “lessons learned” from past school emergencies?;

2) Did anything happen contrary to “best practices” that would require adaptation from current recommendations?; and

3) What new lessons were learned that have not been experienced in the past?

Godspeed to the children, their families, and our educators in their journey to recovery!

Our family made a donation to the American Red Cross.  To make a donation to the American Red Cross to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, call 1-800-HELP-NOW or visit the web site for the American Red Cross.

For questions or feedback on this site, contact Ken Trump, President of National School Safety and Security Services.