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Public Health Emergency Preparedness

This resource was part of AHRQ's Public Health Emergency Preparedness program, which was discontinued on June 30, 2011, in a realignment of Federal efforts.

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Part II. The Brookline Schools Readiness Project: A Roadmap to Creating a Comprehensive School Emergency Response Plan

Simultaneous with the development of recommendations described in Part I, The Center for Biopreparedness at Children's Hospital Boston approached the Town of Brookline with an offer to create a comprehensive School Emergency Response Plan for the Brookline schools. Janice Balsam Danielson, a former Brookline teacher, was recruited as the primary project scientist overseeing the project.

Brookline School System Characteristics

The Town of Brookline, which is contiguous with the City of Boston, has approximately 55,000 citizens and its own government. The Brookline Public Schools (BPS) consist of eight elementary schools, one high school, several preschool and after-school programs, and a full range of after-school athletics. There are approximately 1,100 staff members, including teachers, administrators, and nurses. The BPS system services approximately 7,000 children. It is governed by an elected School Committee and administered by a Superintendent. The Superintendent, along with several Assistant Superintendents, is responsible for overseeing programming, budget, and other administrative tasks.

Each of the eight elementary schools serves children from kindergarten through eighth grade. One of the schools has a pre-kindergarten program; there is a preschool program for three- and four-year-olds in a separate facility. The elementary schools differ significantly from one another in size and physical structure. Some of the buildings are more than 50 years old, while others are recent constructions. The schools vary in size; one serves as few as 400 students while another serves more than 700. Each elementary school has an extended day program from 2:00 p.m.-5:45 p.m. for students in kindergarten through grade three. The town high school has approximately 1,800 students. In addition, each of the elementary schools and the high school offer after-school enrichment programs with a variety of course offerings, as well as a homework center and after-school athletics.

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National Review of School Emergency Response Plans

Before initiating the Brookline Schools Project, we contacted 20 school systems throughout the Nation requesting copies of their Emergency Response Plans in order to analyze protocols that were in place in 2004. While focusing primarily on Massachusetts schools, we also sought to obtain data that would be most generalizable by obtaining information from schools in each of the four U.S. regions as well as from both urban and suburban school systems.

We received responses from eight school districts. School personnel from these districts contributed their most current emergency response manuals, several of which were created directly from the U. S. Department of Education monograph, Practical Information on Crisis Planning. Additionally, we spoke with safety officers from these school districts in an effort to determine their impressions of the effectiveness of these plans.

Manuals were content-analyzed for:

  • Thoroughness of implementing the four-phase approach to planning for a disaster.
  • Degree to which school emergency response plans provided an all-hazard approach.
  • The specificity of instructions for response to particular emergency situations.
  • The clarity, practicality, and usability of the plans by crisis teams, teachers, nurses, and other school staff.

Results

Emergency response plans were received and reviewed from the following school systems:

  • LA County Unified School District (CA).
  • Milwaukee Public Schools (WI).
  • Denver Public Schools (CO).
  • Sarasota County Schools (FL).
  • Brookline Public Schools (MA).
  • Newton Public Schools (MA).
  • Winchester Public Schools (MA).
  • Martha's Vineyard Public Schools (MA).

Principle Findings (Appendix A)

  • While many of these school plans were comprehensive, representing hours of thoughtful work, they were not necessarily practical to implement in the particular school setting.
  • Some of these plans contained all the elements recommended by the Department of Education (e.g., the four-phase approach to crisis management). To varying degrees, plans elaborated specific protocols for responding to specific crises (e.g., a school shooting). All contained a crisis notification/communication plan and recommendations for the development of crisis management teams.
  • Some of the crisis manuals were voluminous and inadequately indexed, making rapid access to pertinent information difficult.
  • Many manuals did not outline protocols for responding to some of the relatively common emergencies that occur in schools, such as suspected drugs/alcohol, or medical emergencies.  
  • While some of the information remained constant each year, several details changed based on important differences that occurred from one school year to the next. This approach of annual re-evaluation and alteration is designed to produce a "living document."
  • While every school had well-established evacuation plans, few had plans for relocation, fewer had lockdown plans, and virtually none had sheltering-in plans.
  • Many plans omitted specific guidelines for communication between local emergency responders and the school. 
  • Some plans did not include specific recommendations for developing lines of communication among responders within school buildings.
  • While most of the school plans had an assigned role for a crisis team member to communicate with the media, many did not include sufficiently detailed recommendations on communicating with parents during or after an emergency.
  • There was no specific methodology for training crisis teams, school nurses, or other school personnel.
  • In telephone conversations with school safety officers from two of the districts, they expressed frustration with the relative lack of universal plan implementation among all the schools, particularly in decentralized, larger school districts. In cases where the individual principal was given responsibility for developing the school-specific plan and training/preparing staff, other priorities often took precedence. In addition, they felt that money for developing preparedness was disproportionately spent on planning for large-scale disasters and that more emphasis should be spent preparing schools to respond to the more common emergencies (e.g., guns in schools and missing children).

Other findings are summarized and tabulated in Appendix A

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