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National investment, leadership needed for school preparedness

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June 20, 2016

This post was originally published on April 29, 2016 in The Hill Congress blog.

Recently the GAO released a report examining the state of emergency preparedness in k-12 schools. The conclusions in this report are alarming, as it uncovers a lack of strategic coordination among federal agencies for preparing schools for emergencies. It also finds a lack of clear leadership at the federal level for coordinating these activities, and schools are left having to choose between preparedness and core educational activities.   These findings are similar to recent research we conducted at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University’s Earth Institute. As part of a project funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, we conducted a review of national programs available to assist schools in preparing for acts of terrorism and mass violence. We also looked at the kinds of programs that provide funding or other assistance to schools to improve preparedness. We similarly found significant gaps in our national preparedness programs for schools, with decreasing funding and lack of clear leadership for preparing our schools nationally.

According to our research, most of the dedicated grants that were once available for preparing our schools for preparedness have been eliminated. The remaining programs are broad-based which do not focus exclusively on schools or terrorism. These programs have been cut by as much as half since their peak. This leaves over 99,000 public schools plus the additional private and religious schools to compete for the same reduced funding with all other public safety agencies, emergency managers, public health agencies, healthcare organizations, community-based organizations, and many other stakeholders. These grants are also often highly restrictive in terms of the kinds of trainings that can be used and the way that programs can be rolled out, limiting their usefulness to schools.

Further, we found that national school readiness is sporadically focused on a narrow range of activities and as such, no uniform guidance exists in coverage for the full continuum of preparedness. At the federal level, we could not find any assistance programs that involved parents and the community, only school personnel. Although mental health is frequently cited as an area in need of more attention after virtually every mass shooting, no national funding streams were identified to provide support for early identification of and intervention for mental health issues.  Additionally, following a terrorist attack or an event of mass violence, trauma sets in with the community at large, but no dedicated resources or leadership were identified in our research to support planning for this on a national basis.

A few targeted trainings and regulations for preparedness and response cannot cover the range of community involvement and cross-sector coordination that is necessary to ensure these activities are successful. Further, the virtual absence of prevention and recovery guidance and resources leaves individual schools and local departments of education shouldering the burden along with their own budget challenges, without the guidance of a national strategy. In order for our schools to be prepared to protect our children when disaster strikes, national leadership is required. This should include:

  • Dedicated leadership based at the US Department of Education with close support from the US Department of Justice, the US Department of Health and Human Services, and the US Department of Homeland Security to develop a national strategy for school preparedness.
  • Dedicated baseline funding for schools to implement preparedness initiatives, including cross-sector collaborations and the integration of parents and families into preparedness activities.
  • Early intervention training and resources for schools to ensure that the students are provided with needed mental health and other support services. This should also include training on early identification and de-escalation of emerging threatening situations.

With a comprehensive strategy and funding for school preparedness that includes readiness for acts of terrorism and mass violence, schools will be more prepared to meet the needs of the children they serve in any disaster.  However, ignoring this as a national priority, and failing to make meaningful investments designed to give individual schools the guidance, support, and flexibility they need will only invite further tragedy. As a nation we have the capacity to improve the preparedness of our schools against these acts, but to accomplish this, we must first break the cycle of retreat in the face of this challenge, and make the investment that our children deserve.