Quick! Lives Could be at Stake!

“Now the reason the enlightened prince and the wise general conquer the enemy, whenever they move and their achievements surpass those of ordinary men is foreknowledge.” Sun Tzu

One day at your school you hear a pop. Out of place, it attracts your attention. You start to dismiss it when you hear some cries and more pops.

Quick, lives could be at stake!

Do you go investigate or head towards safety?

Think, THINK!

There’s more popping, and then, panicked screaming.

What do you do?

Most people are not prepared for this moment. They weren’t trained for it. Education is not supposed to be about violence. Yet, in today’s world, violence in schools exists.

Schools need to prepare for the unexpected, like the military and civilian first responders. They plan and train for worst-case scenarios. Those tasked with keeping schools safe must do the same. While the above example may be a rare situation, it is important to understand that schools must be prepared for a wide range of rare but potentially deadly events.

There are a variety of situations in schools that require instant decision making. The steps the military uses to prepare for combat are similar to those used to prepare for school emergencies. In a crisis, chaos reigns, giving Sun Tzu’s statement above relevance; foreknowledge is what can make the difference.

Successful school safety preparedness means looking ahead to what could happen, then figuring out how to deal with it. That’s how foreknowledge is gained. While some people live in denial of the dangers schools face, those whose duty is to protect our school children have the responsibility to recognize threats and properly prepare. Developing the ability to deal with crisis is first a matter of commitment, and then one of learning. More to the point for schools is the fact that this ability can be learned. This learning can occur at little expense to the school, but it does require a commitment by the community.

Response Time
You must know an incident is occurring before responding. Will you use an evacuation, shelter-in-place or a lockdown? What is a mental health incident? Recognizing what is happening allows you to initiate the appropriate response protocol, which includes activation of the Incident Command System. This gets the right people responding.

Once you have identified the incident, you can apply the appropriate response. The first step in any response is to secure yourself, then others. Only when you are secure should you alert others. This begs the question, “Why not alert others first?” The answer is a concept foreign to most, and is simply called “permission to live,“ a concept developed and taught by Michael Dorn of Safe Havens International.

Any school teaching their people to wait for permission before implementing safety protocols not only endangers their people, but may also expose themselves to criminal and/or civil liability. Permission to live means that anyone may initiate emergency responses, not just school leadership. If a student sees smoke, he/she should be able to pull a fire alarm, then tell someone what he/she saw. If a teacher sees a suspicious person entering the building, he/she should initiate a lockdown, and then let the front office know what is happening.

The appropriate response to a school incident consists of one of three things — 
some type of evacuation, some type of shelter-in-place or some type of a lockdown. The various responses should be written down and practiced as functional protocols. After alerting others, the decision is to flee, shelter or hide. This is where the school officials earn their keep, as the wrong decision can lead to more problems. This decision must happen immediately. Hesitation can costs lives.

Once you have identified the type of response you will use, implement it and then contact your chain of command to let them know what is happening. They will have their own protocols to follow, and they will need to know what is happening. Gather as much information as you can to be able to brief the first responders when they arrive, but make sure your children are safe first.

Mental Simulation
People who make these decisions aren’t born with that capability; they can be trained using researched methods that are used by the military, firefighters and other agencies that require fast decision making under stress. Dr. Gary Klein, in Sources of Power, refers to this as “pattern matching and recognition.” Schools need good, solid protocols, but without knowing which protocols to implement, the best protocols in the world will be worthless. The best way to learn which protocols to implement is mental simulation. Get the staff member, student or administrator to imagine themself in a situation and think about how they would respond.

Over a period of time, these short, mental simulations will build up a base of experience that the person can rely on to make the right call. According to Dorn, “The research indicates clearly that mental simulation of a wide range of crisis situations can dramatically help people improve how well they perform under life and death stress. The good news is that effective mental simulation is much easier than many other effective preparedness methodologies such as full-scale exercises.” This gives schools a cost-effective means of creating safer schools. It’s not programs, it’s not the equipment; it’s the people who stand in harm’s way at the decision point who will make the difference. Will you give them the chance to make that difference, or just hope your plans will work?

Without the right people, the plans are just paper. 


Stephen C. Satterly, Jr. is the director of School Safety and Transportation at the CSC Southern Hancock County in East Central Indiana and a certified Indiana School Safety Specialist with more than 75 hours of FEMA training. He can be reached at satterly.steve@att.net.


About the Author

Stephen C. Satterly, Jr. is the director of School Safety and Transportation at the CSC Southern Hancock County in East Central Indiana and a certified Indiana School Safety Specialist with more than 75 hours of FEMA training. He can be reached at satterly.steve@att.net.

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