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Comprehensive Emergency Planning for Public Schools (II): The Evolving Challenge of In Loco Parentis

My experience with the subject of emergency planning grew out of my work on nuclear strategy, and encompassed the whole range of civilian activities to deal with the aftermath of a nuclear exchange with the Soviet Union, and the federal and state agencies with those responsibilities.

Ironically, nuclear detonations have to be on the list of threats confronting emergency planners responsible for LAUSD. The city and its port are surely attractive to the most capable of international terrorists. But the more compelling problem is that threats to the security of students – or at least the perception of threats – have far outpaced the thinking, processes, organizations, and systems to deal them. It is not sufficient to graft onto schools the technologies, procedures, expertise, and plans developed for malls, universities, hospitals, government buildings, airports, prisons, military bases, police headquarters, etc - that's what we've been doing. We need a distinct strategic concept for public education.

The place to start this discussion is the unique legal responsibility of public schools to assure student safety and the increasing complexity of the task.

When it comes to the safety of minor-age students, public schools serve in loco parentis – literally "in the place of parents" – and so assume both the duties and responsibilities of a parent in this sphere. A “child's physical safety is entrusted to the school and to the teacher, who thus become legally liable for the child's safety, insofar as negligence can be proved against them.” (see here)

For the overwhelming bulk of America’s 150 year history with public education, student safety has been the least of our worries. I suspect that most Americans in the vicinity of 50 years old had an with experience with school safety not terribly different from my own.

When I attended suburban Our Lady Star of the Sea Elementary and Swampscott High Schools, I would have divided the people working in public education into three categories: my teachers in the classroom, my coaches in after-school sports, and the folks who made school possible – the bus drivers, the janitors and groundskeepers, the ladies in the principal’s office, and the cafeteria crew. I can’t imagine thinking to add "the people who make school safe." Such people existed but safety, security, disasters and emergency planning were not a distinct category of needs, requiring a special set of school employees.

I remember touring the firehouse and the police station in grade school, but as civics lessons and field trips – like going to the town library to get my first card. I remember fire drills, but more as unscheduled recess. The North Shore of Massachusetts has some fierce Nor-Easters, but I don’t remember them as natural disasters separating me from my parents. I didn't expect to see cops outside my school building to deal with an armed classmate. Detention for talking back to a teacher was rare, because talking back to teachers was rare. The Italian, Irish and Jewish kids hung with their own and had vague rivalries. (All the Yankees were sent to prep school.) Still, I saw just two “fights” in school throughout this period; mostly pushing, wrestling, and torn clothing. Admittedly off-campus hockey games at the arena in industrial Lynn were an different matter. Many boys carried Boy Scout or Swiss Army knives, but no one brought guns on campus. Drinking was a well-understood issue when I reached high school in 1970, but marijuana was just coming onto the scene. I can’t remember a rape, a case of sexual harassment, or even a young woman who left “to visit an aunt” for a few months.

Through first-hand experience, I was somewhat aware that things were worse in the “inner city.”. My mom thought it would be a character-building experience to stay with the family of the boy we sponsored in our elementary school – who lived in "the projects” in Boston's Roxbury neighborhood. Without Tony I’m sure I would have at least lost my new track shoes. But even this could not have been that dangerous. My mom lived in some tough industrial neighborhoods herself; her mom grew up a Protestant Scot in Catholic Irish Southie. I don’t think she was overly naïve, although we were the only family that did this and I would have preferred any amount of yard work to the opportunity.

I was also somewhat aware of the difference between the town government of New England and the county government that predominates farther west. When my folks moved to California after I went to college, I learned that the fact that my kid brother lived in highly affluent La Jolla didn't have much influence on the police when he shot bottle rockets off the top of some hill. In Swampscott, it wouldn't have either, because the officer would have known the kid regardless of his parents' income, and would have focused on the needs relating to that kid. In San Diego County, my brother was just another subject of standard operating procedure and taken down to the station.

In my little towns, most problems at school could be dealt with long before they became crises. Most fathers commuted to work in Boston, but there were not too many kids whose mothers could not have made it to the principal's office in 30 minutes or less. There weren't too many issues that could not be resolved informally by some combination of a teacher, principal, guidance counselor, parent, policemen, doctor and psychologist and, really, by classmates.

Even in rural America, "my little town" has long since passed into mythology. Sexual abuse is a real fear in public and parochial school systems. Every town now faces the prospect of Columbine. Drugs are ubiquitous and reach into elementary school. I doubt serious youth gang violence has touched Swampscott, but it has has spread into the far suburbs of affluent Arlington, Fairfax, Montgomery and Prince Georges Counties outside of the District of Columbia where I now live. And where they exist, gangs are far more organized and lethal than ever before - and their tentacles reach into grade school.

Economic growth has placed schools near industrial facilities, rail tracks, canals, power lines, and major highways, increasing the risk of hazardous industrial accidents. Katrina has underlined that many areas where mammoth natural disasters occur "once in a hundred years" are due, or overdue - and civil authorities are woefully unprepared. At least in major urban areas, international terrorism, including nuclear terrorism, became equally likely after September 11, 2001. And the school hostage crisis in the Russian city of Besian, North Ossetia, demonstrated that students might be the intended targets of terrorism.

Most of these challenges to student safety at school can be addressed in some way beforehand, but many will become crises. Informal systems of emergency management that worked fairly well in small districts cannot handle the new environment. Even where the problem is one student, school administrators can no longer count on a parent getting to campus in a half hour - most everyone works. In the event of a massive disaster, many parents will be trapped at their place of employment perhaps 30 miles away from school. There are no longer many issues that can be resolved informally by some combination of a teacher, principal, guidance counselor, parent, policemen, doctor and psychologist or classmates. For a variety of demographic, cultural and economic reasons, informal ties have broken down and replaced with formal bureaucratic systems.

In urban areas and county governments, where these ties were never an (unstated) planning assumption, assuring student safety could become impossible. The combination an increasing number of threats and expanding threat spectrum, the growing risk of deaths and of more deaths, the higher probability of events encompassing multiple schools, and the prospect that school officials will not be able to count on other emergency response assets in a regional disaster are overwhelming.

Add to this a shortage of resources, information on which to base planning assumptions, and reliable indications and warning of each category of threat "Planning" is always possible, but this mix leads me to suspect that credible planning for schools is secretly considered one of those "can't get there from here" problems.

Next: Addressing the Challenge

Marc Dean Millot is the editor of School Improvement Industry Week and K-12 Leads and Youth Service Markets Report. His firm provides independent information and advisory services to business, government and research organizations in public education.


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