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School Preparedness Matters

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By Francisco M. Negrón, Jr., General Counsel for the National School Boards Association

It is often a struggle to find something positive amidst tragedy. That is especially true in the recent massacre of innocents at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. But, as horrific as this incident was, the tragedy could have been even greater had it not been for the quick thinking and action of the many teachers and school personnel at Sandy Hook Elementary.

It was their actions that kept the remaining students out of harm's way. Actions like teachers quickly locking classroom doors and herding children into back rooms, storage closets and other areas; reading softly to children as shots rang out; passing out crayons and coloring papers to distract young minds from the horror in the hallways.

That kind of action is no accident. It is the result of sound emergency preparedness policies enacted by school board leaders, implemented by superintendents, and carried out by teachers and school officials. It is a sad commentary of American society that violence of this magnitude is no longer reserved for the movies or video games. And it's frightening to contemplate hypothetical attacks in disaster preparedness for our own communities. For this reason alone, the Board of Education of Newtown is to be commended for adopting an effective emergency preparedness plan. But, a plan only works if it is implemented. Much praise also should be given to the Superintendent of the Newtown Public Schools for training employees on the intricacies of the plan. Lastly, kudos are due to the valiant school employees who stuck to the plan and bravely followed their training, putting their lives ahead of the more than 700 students who were in classrooms. There is no substitute for training, training and more training &madsh; especially when it comes to emergency situations, where the clear-headed, rational action of teachers and school personnel can mean the difference between life and death.

It is because of plans and training like those in Newtown, that schools across the United States will continue to be the safe havens they are for the vast majority of students, in spite of the depraved acts of those determined to harm our children. Parents and families can help by being part of the dialogue that encourages engagement among local school district leaders, local law enforcement and the community to determine the best emergency plans for their schools. Once those partnerships are in place, schools can help by regularly training school officials on the procedures. Parents should also understand the emergency plans and should talk to their children in an age appropriate manner about following the directives of teachers and other school officials.

At Sandy Hook, Principal Hochsprung, who gave her life trying to protect her students, posted a letter on the school's website just a few months ago, sharing part of the school's safety plan. That plan involved locking exterior doors, limiting entrance for visitors to the front door, using a visual monitoring system before allowing visitors access, and requiring identification with "a picture id" before granting admission. The school also notified parents that it would lock all of its exterior entrances after students had arrived for class in the morning, and would even require late arriving students to be "signed in at the office." Ever mindful of the community-school relationship, Principal Hochsprung wrote, "We need your help and cooperation for our system to work effectively." Together with a district preparedness plan of training and drills, it seems that there may have been little else a school could do to respond to someone so intent on committing harm.

Now as we are moving forward, we can take comfort in knowing that in spite of everything, the heroes of that day, administrators, teachers, aides and school officials, did what they were trained to do, to prevent a terrible tragedy from becoming even more deadly than it was. In the end, Sandy Hook will be remembered for the heroic actions of its staff and the warm embrace of its community.

Views expressed in this post are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the endorsement of the Learning First Alliance or any of its members.

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