Promises You Cannot Keep

Evaluating school safety and crisis plans almost every week, one cannot help but note certain patterns. One concern I have found in hundreds of these plans over the years is the use of language that could be interpreted as a promise to provide a level of safety, security or emergency preparedness beyond the organization’s ability to deliver.

One plan that I reviewed a few weeks ago, for a large urban school district, made the statement that student safety was the district’s “highest priority.” While the district wants to point to its recognition of the importance of safety for students, there is a potential problem with this language. For one thing, it is not really true in this district. Secondly, an attorney or reporter can make considerable hay of this statement should a serious safety incident occur.

The district in question is a very high-caliber school system and is moving in the direction of a high-quality school safety program. However, the reality is that when the plan using these words was written, the district was pretty far behind anything close to best practices in school safety. Secondly, even if the district had one of the top safety programs in the nation, it would still be hard pressed in court to validate that statement.

An astute attorney would likely ask district representatives what percentage of the annual budget was committed to safety, security and emergency preparedness. He or she would then point out how, by percentage, a relatively modest amount of the budget is committed to safety. Attorneys can get good mileage out of these types of assertions in a civil trial or even when trying to press for a high out-of-court settlement. The district’s motivation in making these types of statements is understandable, but an adjustment in wording might be in order.

Fortunately, it is not that difficult to avoid these types of problems. Simply evaluating written documents and thinking about how school spokespersons phrase safety-related terminology can help significantly reduce the number of phrases that are likely to come back to haunt the organization.

For example, one of the most commonly used words to create an unrealistic commitment to safety is “ensure.” An example from an action step in another district’s crisis plan is typical — “staff are to ensure that all students are safe and secure.” While we all wish for school staff to strive for this, putting this action step in a protocol for an active shooter situation is not only unrealistic, it could cause problems in court, and perhaps even emotional stress for school staff who are unable to protect students because they take appropriate action steps to protect a larger number of other students from imminent danger.

We have already seen instances where school administrators and teachers have experienced severe guilt over their inability to protect students from harm in some situations. It might be a good idea to avoid language in school policies and statements that could add to these types of problems. Thinking about word choice to convey the general idea without inadvertently setting school employees up for failure is more a mindset than a task.

For example, instead of saying “to ensure your child’s safety” in a document, it may be better to say “to enhance safety at our school.”

One way to quickly evaluate any language you are concerned about is to picture how you would respond to an attorney’s question to prove the statement. If an attorney asked a school official to demonstrate that their crisis plans were indeed “best practice” plans, he or she might have difficulty doing so. If, however, the language he or she used to describe the plans was in keeping with a leading source such as the United States Department of Education, they could verify that they used “four-phase all-hazards plans developed in concert with area public safety agencies,” as long as they follow the department’s model for plan development. As long as it is accurate, this statement would be much easier to prove in court or in a media interview.

It should not be very difficult to take the time to evaluate policies, plans, student and staff handbooks, and signs relating to safety, security and emergency preparedness, with the purpose of clarifying meaning and reducing the chances that the language the organization uses can be turned against them later.

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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