4 Ways to Strengthen Your K-12 School’s Emergency Response Plan

On top of everything schools are grappling with, they’re also dealing with a sharp rise in school threats and disruptive student behavior.

To combat this, some districts are bringing together SROs and mental health services to strengthen their school’s emergency response plan. After all, the best time to prevent an emergency is before it starts.

But what does that kind of preparation require in a K-12 school setting?

Dr. Amy Grosso, director of behavioral health at Round Rock ISD in Texas, says that the first step is early recognition and intervention of students who are going through trauma or may soon be experiencing a crisis. Students’ mental health should also inform how school police departments, SROs, and local law enforcement engage with those children during an emergency.

To encourage these types of interactions, Chief Kitzerow, president of the national association of school and campus police chiefs, says that open dialogue and clear procedures need to be put in place before a potential problem is ever detected.

Below, find four strategies from Dr. Grosso and Chief Kitzerow to strengthen your school’s emergency response plan so you can create strong, responsive relationships with students, parents, and local law enforcement before a crisis ever begins.

1. Prioritize the mental health of students

During the pandemic, many students struggled with being out of school, away from resources, and socially isolated. But many children were struggling long before then. Dr. Grosso says that teen suicide prevention is what first brought her to the topic of school safety. Suicide is the second leading cause of death for teens in the United States.

“I think what COVID did is really shine a spotlight on the mental health crisis that our whole country has been in, but specifically students have been in,” says Dr. Grosso. “And so, I think holistically there’s not as much of a stigma attached to it.”

Training and education are critical so teachers and staff can assess and recognize warning signs before they escalate to a full-blown crisis. School police departments can run wellness checks on students who’ve been absent from school and trained mental health experts can work with students who’ve been identified as at risk of self-harm or violence.

Anonymous reporting systems for students can be an effective way to allow students to communicate their concerns with school mental health professionals. For every student who’s at risk of dangerous behavior to themself or others, there are many more who are just trying to keep themselves and their friends safe. But it’s crucial that kids don’t bear too great a burden for their own safety.

Solutions like those offered by Lightspeed Systems can provide schools with web filters, student safety monitoring, classroom management software, management tools, and analytics for every device on campus. Lightspeed Alert™ flags online warning signs of suicide, self-harm, cyberbullying, or violence and alerts your school’s safety team so that intervention can happen quickly.

2. Build strong relationships between social workers, SROs, and parents

K-12 school emergencies can involve hundreds of students and their families, teachers, and administrators, along with police, SROs, and mental health professionals. To ensure all these parties can work together for the optimum safety of everyone involved, partnership between mental health professionals and school law enforcement is critical, says Chief Kitzerow.

Social workers, counselors, and therapists have unique insight into students’ well-being and mental health. A counselor might know, for example, if a student seen leaving campus has been showing suicidal ideation and therefore needs to be closely monitored. SROs and other school police officers are uniquely trained to deal with potential violence. By working together, these two groups can inform the approach that’s taken toward students. SROs and school mental health workers should make sure they keep an open dialogue so that if a crisis occurs, they’re ready to work together as a team. Dr. Grosso suggests reviewing previous incidents together and assessing what worked and what didn’t.

Parents also need the right resources and education to help their kids. Many parents of school age children may feel ill-equipped to help or understand what their kids are going through, particularly with the advent of social media and its unique dangers. With news stories about threats being circulated on apps, this disconnect becomes even more concerning.

Some of the communication approaches used during the pandemic may offer an effective way to reach parents. Dr. Grosso says that online sessions can be a more comfortable way for parents to learn about sensitive issues that might be affecting their children, like self-harm or depression. These newer avenues for education can help parents play an equal role with mental health workers and SROs in keeping kids safe.

3. Create a detailed action plan before a crisis occurs

Administrators should make sure that local law enforcement and fire departments are just as aware of the school’s emergency management plan as internal stakeholders are. Having those conversations ahead of time can ensure that, in case of an emergency, plans can be smoothly rolled out instead of getting bogged down in competing chains of command and procedure.

A good place to start, according to Chief Kitzerow, is to make sure that schools, police, and fire departments are all agreed on the primary reunification site after an incident. Emergency management tools like Raptor®, which can be integrated into a school’s student information system, can help by making sure that every student and campus visitor is always accounted for. Raptor also facilitates emergency drills and helps schools coordinate emergency response, including coordination with local police and fire departments.

It’s also important that parents and guardians are educated in advance about the school’s procedures in the event of different emergency scenarios. Then if a threat is detected, make sure to keep parents updated early and often.

4. Assess before you arrest: search for the root of the problem

Chief Kitzerow says that traditionally, law enforcement officers would try to immediately remove a student who was causing a disruption—to isolate them by taking them out of their classroom or school. But that sort of aggressive action can often escalate quickly if a student doesn’t want to leave. If the situation escalates too much, it may lead to criminal charges, arrest, and a criminal record for the student.

A new approach, informed by mental health advocates, would begin by removing everyone from the situation: the student, their classmates, and their teacher. By neutralizing the situation entirely and removing any potential stimulus, the adults in charge can then try to discover any underlying issues that may be affecting the child who’s causing the disruption. Is the student hungry? What’s their home situation like? What kind of stress and trauma are they dealing with and how might their actions be an attempt to express themselves or get help?

By deescalating and addressing the roots of behavior, schools can help students not only avoid long-term negative consequences but also help children get the support that will help them thrive going forward. When schools can act according to thoughtful plans and emergency response strategies informed by an awareness of mental health and each student’s history, all children benefit.

“I think if you’re willing to work within a school system, whether you’re in law enforcement, mental health teacher, support services, whatever it is, your real mission is the children,” says Chief Kitzerow. “If we want students to thrive, the goal is to not only keep children safe,” he says, “but to also make sure they feel safe.”

For more tips to create a strong, effective emergency response strategy at your school, watch our on-demand webinar, How Districts Can Combat Increasing School Threats.

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