Donovan Group Insights

Crisis Management 101: Preparing Your School for the Unexpected

When an emergency happens, your school needs to act fast—but without a detailed crisis management plan, your staff and other stakeholders may not know what to do. In order to mitigate damage and work toward a positive resolution, your team needs to be on the same page.

Your school’s crisis management plan will help safeguard the safety and well-being of students, staff and visitors, by ensuring a swift coordinated response to emergencies. By identifying potential risks, establishing clear protocols and providing training and resources, your plan enables the school to reduce the impact of unexpected events like natural disasters, violence, medical emergencies or technological failures. It also fosters confidence among your school community while complying with legal and regulatory standards.

What should a crisis plan include?

Every school has unique characteristics, including your location and community, which can affect what’s included in your crisis management plan. For example, schools in California typically need to consider earthquake preparedness, while schools in Iowa are unlikely to encounter that issue.

However, all school crisis plans should include these key components:

  • Chain of command and roles: It’s important to define the chain of command and roles and responsibilities of staff members during a crisis. Your plan should designate individuals or teams responsible for coordinating the response, communicating with external agencies and stakeholders, overseeing the safety of students and staff, providing medical assistance, managing resources and other critical tasks. When lines of communication and authority are well-established, it helps facilitate a coordinated and effective response.
  • Communication protocols: Your plan should create communication protocols for notifying and disseminating information to staff, students, parents, emergency responders and other stakeholders during a crisis. This includes primary and alternate methods of communication, such as phone trees, email lists, text messaging systems, social media platforms and public address systems. You will also need procedures for relaying timely and accurate updates, instructions and safety information to ensure everyone receives the information they need to stay safe.
  • Emergency response procedures: You will need comprehensive procedures with step-by-step instructions for responding to various types of crises. The plan should include evacuation routes, shelter-in-place protocols, lockdown procedures, medical emergency response, reunification procedures and other necessary actions. The procedures should be clear, practical and adaptable to different scenarios.
  • Resource management: Next, your plan must identify and allocate the resources for during a crisis, such as first aid supplies, emergency equipment, transportation, temporary shelter, food, water and communication tools. Establish protocols for inventory management, procurement and distribution of resources to ensure they are readily available and accessible when needed. Collaborate with local emergency responders, government agencies and community organizations to leverage additional resources and support as necessary.
  • Training and drills: Provide regular training and conduct drills and exercises to ensure that staff and students are familiar with emergency procedures and can respond appropriately. Training should cover topics such as recognizing warning signs, responding to alarms, following evacuation routes, administering first aid and working together as a team. It’s always wise to debrief after these drills to identify areas for improvement and incorporate lessons learned into future training efforts.
  • Crisis recovery and continuity: Your plan also needs to contemplate the aftermath of an emergency. Include plans and procedures for resuming normal operations and communications as quickly and smoothly as possible. This includes assessing damage and addressing immediate needs, providing support and assistance to affected individuals, restoring facilities and infrastructure and communicating recovery efforts to stakeholders. It’s also a good idea to establish a continuity of operations plan to ensure essential functions can continue during and after a crisis. This might include academic instruction, student support services and administrative functions.

In addition to the critical components, you may also wish to include these optional elements:

  • Media relations: Establish guidelines for interacting with the media during and after a crisis. You can designate a spokesperson or public information officer responsible for communicating with the media and controlling the release of information to the public. Consider strategies for managing media inquiries, disseminating accurate and timely updates and protecting the privacy and dignity of individuals involved in the crisis.
  • Community partnerships: Community partnerships can make a huge difference in crisis management. Foster partnerships and collaboration with local emergency responders, government agencies, community organizations and neighboring schools—they may be able to share resources and react quickly to emergencies. Create channels for sharing information, resources and best practices—you may even coordinate joint training exercises and drills.
  • Technology integration: Technology makes it easier to communicate with students, staff, stakeholders and the community at large during an emergency. Consider which technology tools and resources you have available, and what would enhance coordination and response capabilities during a crisis. This may include using emergency notification systems, installing surveillance cameras to monitor campus activities, offering mobile applications for reporting incidents and accessing resources and deploying digital mapping tools to assist with navigation.
  • Psychological first aid: Crises can have a lasting impact on your community. Consider incorporating strategies for providing psychological first aid and emotional support to students, staff, and parents affected by a crisis. Train staff members and counselors in trauma-informed care principles and techniques for addressing emotional needs, facilitating coping mechanisms and promoting recovery in the aftermath of traumatic events.

How to create a crisis management plan

Now that you know what to include in your crisis management plan, follow these steps to get started:

  • Risk assessment and planning: Conduct a thorough assessment of potential risks and hazards specific to your school environment. This includes identifying natural disasters (e.g., earthquakes, hurricanes), human-caused threats (e.g., intruders, violence), medical emergencies, technological failures and other potential crises. Develop plans and protocols tailored to address each type of crisis, taking into account the school’s location, infrastructure, student population and other relevant factors.
  • Cross-functional teams and committees: Establish teams responsible for overseeing different aspects of crisis management, such as planning, training, communication, resource management and evaluation. This encourages collaboration and coordination among team members for a holistic and integrated approach. It also makes creating, maintaining and testing the plan manageable for everyone.
  • Legal and regulatory compliance: Next, make sure that your crisis management plan aligns with any legal and regulatory requirements governing emergency preparedness and response in educational settings. Your legal team should help you stay informed about relevant laws, regulations and guidelines issued by federal, state, and local authorities. They should also update the plan, should the laws change, to maintain compliance and minimize legal liability.
  • Evaluation and improvement: It’s important to make sure that your plan works, and readjust if you find problems. Regularly review the crisis management plan through exercises, simulations and real-world incidents. Solicit feedback from staff, students, parents and other stakeholders to identify areas for improvement. Consider the evolving risks, changes in the school environment and other lessons learned from experience.

By creating a comprehensive crisis management plan, schools can improve their readiness to address a wide range of crises effectively. In turn, a well-managed plan can protect the well-being of students and staff, and help promote resilience and recovery in the entire community.

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