Road to Recovery: Fourth Phase of Emergency Management

I was a little shocked at a recent conference when no one raised a hand when I asked if the private school or school district the attendees worked for had a written recovery plan. What surprised me about this response was that this was my third time presenting for the Montana Behavioral Institute, and I know school mental health officials in the state typically have had extensive training on recovery issues through MBI and other sources. And, Montana school mental health professionals probably have more preparation in this area than in many other states.

In another recent situation, while preparing a bid on a consultancy project for one of the nation’s largest school systems, we noted the project includes development of a written recovery plan for the district. The request for proposal indicates that the district has little in the way of a written recovery plan. This school system would rate as one of the top districts in the nation for staff training in recovery issues.

The U.S. Department of Education and Jane’s models for safe school planning urge schools to develop a comprehensive and detailed recovery plan. Both models are based on the emergency management model that has proven its effectiveness in many settings for decades. The concept is especially important in the wake of major disasters, such as earthquakes and mass casualty events. The recovery plan should include mental health services to help people affected by the crisis, as well as logistical and business continuity components to ensure the process of education can be resumed quickly. Only a small percentage of public and private school systems have a written recovery plan. Tragic outcomes in the aftermath of a number of major school crisis situations have demonstrated that it is crucial to fulfill this unmet need.

Following are a few examples of negative outcomes that have occurred when proper written recovery plans were not in place.

• One parent who lost a child to an act of school violence committed suicide.

• A school where a multiple-victim shooting occurred reported that more than 60 percent of all staff at the school left the school within a few years.

• One school district spent more than $20 million on repairs, renovations and security upgrades following a multiple-victim shooting.

• A rural district inefficiently spent more than $7 million on security upgrades at a middle school following a multiple-victim shooting.

• A school where a multiple-victim shooting occurred reported a more than 70 percent increase in substance abuse by students enrolled when the shooting occurred.

• A school mental health professional lost more than $8,000 of her own money when she became involved with an initiative to raise memorial funds after an incident.

• A school system received harsh criticism and alienated many victims and family members of victims when they became involved with a fund for victims and disagreements arose as to how the money should be distributed.

These are just a few of the consequences that have faced school systems that failed to properly prepare a written recovery plan. As most school systems will encounter situations requiring recovery efforts at some point in time, it is more than prudent to take the time to develop a proper written recovery plan.

As with most other safety concerns, recovery planning should be conducted prior to an event to be truly effective. As always, when consultants are used, great care should be taken to select experts who actually have the proper credentials and experience in the specific field of crisis recovery. Most school safety consultants do not have this type of experience. But, unfortunately, many of them will accept a contract to do this type of work. National experts like Sonayia Shepherd and Marlene Wong, who have had formal training, appropriate certifications and have headed large recovery teams, should be used for this specialized type of work. As we have seen with the incidents highlighted above, when school officials try to throw together recovery measures in the aftermath of a crisis, their efforts are of limited effectiveness. Make sure you are ready to lead your schools down the hard road to recovery with a proper recovery plan.

About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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