Education & Government
Kathleen Vail Image
Kathleen Vail
Former Editor-in-Chief, National School Boards Association

Tips for implementing a school crisis management plan

September 28, 2023
0 min read
Tips for implementing a school crisis management plan

Making sure their school district is prepared in case of a crisis is the best way school boards can protect their students, teachers, and staff in their school buildings and during school-sponsored events. Threats to school safety include natural disasters, contagious diseases, environmental hazards, cyberattacks, bullying and fighting, and active shooter incidents.

The community will look to the school board, as the leaders of the district, for reaction and reassurance. Having a plan in place and activating that plan will exude a calm response, encouraging the community to react similarly. During a crisis, calm is what is needed.

Fortunately, school threats can be mitigated, and their damage alleviated, with preparation and planning. When these incidents do occur, school districts with solid crisis management plans are better able to recover and experience fewer disruptions to the education of their students.

What is a school crisis management plan?

A crisis management plan is a comprehensive document that outlines the procedures and protocols to follow in the event of various types of crises or emergencies within a school or school district. School boards and their superintendents create these plans in coordination and partnership with local law enforcement, emergency responders, and district staff and community members.

Comprehensiveness is the key element to a plan. To avoid piecemeal or fragmented approaches to disaster planning and response, school boards should use an “all hazards” approach, which considers the full array of potential emergencies or disasters, according to the National School Boards Association’s publication, Fostering Safer Schools: A Legal Guide for School Board Members.

Those risks can take a number of forms:

  • Natural — Earthquakes, tornados, hurricanes, floods
  • Technological — Power outages, cyberattacks, network failures
  • Biological — Infectious diseases or contaminated food
  • Man-made – Terrorism threats, active shooters, fires or explosions.
  • Student culture and climate — Bullying, drugs, violent behavior and fighting

Once created, crisis management plans only do the job if they are living documents that the school board reviews and updates regularly based on up-to-date information and data. Many states require districts to have school safety plans, so make sure that your district is following state mandates and regulations.

Here the essential elements of a school safety/crisis management plan:

1. Perform a risk assessment

A risk assessment should be performed along with the creation of a crisis management plan. The assessment identifies and evaluates potential risks and hazards that could impact the safety, security, and well-being of students, staff, and visitors within a school district and individual schools.

These assessments should be updated frequently, with the results easily searched and available. A district-based team can perform risk assessments. Some districts hire outside safety consultants to do them. Board members should be apprised of the results. This can happen in closed session due to the nature of security reports.

2. Create a crisis management team

Confusion is common in the first moments of a crisis and can worsen an already bad situation. Designating a team of crisis responders can help avoid that confusion. The team should have a leader who is empowered to make immediate decisions, e.g. superintendent or top administrator. Other team members might include principals, counselors, school safety officers, and facility managers. This team will no doubt include members with the risk assessment team.

All team members have clear responsibilities in a crisis, such as calling for law enforcement and emergency responders, communicating to the staff, community, and the media, and coordinating the response at the site of the emergency.

The crisis management team can delegate and assign roles to other staff. Members should be able to access documents such as school blueprints, student enrollment lists, and other information needed during the crisis.

3. Collaborate with the community

School districts cannot manage an emergency alone. Crisis management plans should be created with people who have expertise in crisis response and management: local law enforcement agencies, emergency responders, hospitals and community mental health organizations. Some states actually require that districts work closely with law enforcement and emergency responders when creating a crisis management plan.

Information must go both ways for the partnerships to be successful. Districts will need to provide outside agencies with operational and logistical information about schools so they can make recommendations based on their expertise and knowledge.

School staff, students, and parents should also be included in a drill as their perspectives are essential to the success of emergency response and the mitigation of risk. After a drill it is important to get feedback from all of these to feed into the final plan.

4. Conduct training

Regular training is the heart of any successful crisis management plan. Panic and confusion can push barely remembered procedures and protocols right out the minds of the people amid the crisis.

Training and drills can help everyone remember their roles and the procedures they need to follow to stay safe in emergencies. They should be performed regularly by adults and students. Training sessions should be done calmly to make sure that the drills don’t traumatize students.

School safety expert Kenneth Trump, in an interview with American School Board Journal, emphasized that training should include all school staff, not just teachers and administrators. That includes front office staff “who are on the front line controlling the single point of entry,” custodians “who are on campus all day and see strangers and strange vehicles on campus,” food service workers “who are in the cafeterias where incidents may erupt,” and bus drivers “who are the first and last people that students see during the day.”

5. Establish communication protocols

A communication plan during a crisis is essential and should include a protocol on who should be informed and when. An old-fashioned phone tree posted electronically can be used to call or to text critical staff members.

Another essential element is deciding what and when to communicate to parents, community members and the media. The school district website should be the single source of information, and it should be updated regularly throughout the crisis and recovery period. If you’re tempted to skip this step out of privacy concerns, remember that many students will be texting and calling their parents during a crisis. They potentially will be posting to social media. Parents will gather their own information, and the more they hear from official district sources, the better.

Parent and student reunification procedures should be kept flexible to allow for changing circumstances.

Leverage technology to facilitate planning for and responding to a crisis

Putting together and implementing a districtwide crisis management plan is a complex process that involves the superintendent, staff, community members, agencies, and sometimes safety and legal consultants.

Board management software has features that can support crisis management planning. The plans can be stored on your board management platform along with information about risk assessments. They can easily be surfaced when the board is making decisions about plan implementation. Current contact information can be readily available to be used by the crisis management team during an event.

Technology tools such as Diligent Community support school boards by gathering essential safety information and data in one place, so it can be accessed easily on a secure platform. Board members can use the platform to review their plan frequently, ensuring that their updates and changes are immediately visible to everyone in the district and in the community who have crucial roles in protecting the schools and their students.


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