Brandon K. Wright is a partner with the law firm of Miller, Tracy, Braun, Funk & Miller, Ltd. He represents school districts and special education co-ops and is a speaker and writer on issues of school law.
Under the School Safety Drill Act, Illinois schools are required to conduct a minimum of six drills annually. While it may be easy to view safety drills and the accompanying annual review as routine events, merely conducting prescribed drills and approving the same emergency and crisis response plan year after year may not be sufficient to prepare staff and students for an emergency situation, or to evade legal liability.
How can a school prepare staff and students for an emergency situation and evade legal liability?
First, it is advisable to prepare staff and students for safety drills prior to conducting the drills themselves. While safety drills are often seen as discrete events, staff and students may need additional instruction to understand the objective of safety drills, and what to do if emergency situations occur. Thus, the National Association of School Psychologists recommends that emergency drills be conducted after the school has had an opportunity to conduct basic, discussion-based exercises. These exercises can be conducted at two levels: first, members of the administration or school safety team provide specific training to staff members; and second, staff members provide instruction to students.
The first discussion-based training exercise provides the school safety team an opportunity to train teachers and staff members on specific drills. At this meeting, copies of the emergency and crisis response plan, protocols, and procedures may be distributed to staff with an opportunity for staff questions and feedback. At the end of training, teachers should be knowledgeable on the specific drills, understand the differences between the drills, and know how to instruct their students on drill participation. In addition to this formal training, consider devoting part of staff meetings to discussing the building’s emergency and crisis response plan, protocols, and procedures. This emphasizes the importance of the plans, while also providing staff another opportunity to provide feedback on the procedures and to ask questions.
In addition to instructing how drills should be performed, direction should be given to teachers and staff members regarding their behavior and affect during a drill or an emergency. When an emergency situation occurs, students look to the adults around them for guidance. Thus, as noted by the National Association of School Psychologists, adults’ behavior in an emergency directly affects the physical and psychological safety of students. If a teacher or staff member is calm and knowledgeable, students are more likely to remain calm themselves and to follow the guidance provided.
Finally, schools should consider providing training to students prior to conducting a drill. In preparing this training, considerations should be given to the students’ cognitive and developmental levels, personality, history of adverse or traumatic experiences, and psychological makeup. For example, emergency training given to fifth graders may be different from that given to kindergartners. In addition to developmental maturity, special consideration may be taken in providing training and accommodations for students with physical or cognitive disabilities who may struggle to move quickly or to respond to instructions in an emergency situation.
It is also important to conduct appropriate drills. As a threshold issue, it is highly inadvisable to skip drills. The School Safety Drill Act requires Illinois schools to conduct a minimum of six drills: three school evacuation drills, one bus evacuation drill, one law enforcement drill, and one severe weather/shelter-in-place drill. Failure to conduct all drills prescribed by the Act subjects all members of the school community to an increased risk of harm in the event of an emergency. It also subjects the school to legal liability.
The Illinois Administrative Code requires each drill conducted pursuant to the Act to fulfill four objectives: notification and response, movement to safe areas, communication with first responders, and accounting for all occupants.
First, students, staff members, first responders, and visitors — both inside and outside the school building — must “be alerted to the fact that an emergency exists; receive adequate instructions on how to proceed, including supplemental instructions from first responders; and respond appropriately to the directions given.”
Second, these individuals are to move to safe areas. Accounting should be made regarding staff’s ability to provide effective assistance to those who cannot evacuate on their own.
Third, students and staff must “ensure that the system for communicating with responding agencies provides timely and complete information about the nature, scope, and current status of the emergency situation and about the status of all the building’s occupants, whether evacuated or sheltering in place.” More simply, the drill is intended to test the ability of students and staff to provide necessary information to first responders.
Finally, each drill should “ensure that designated areas for assembling are appropriate to the type of incident to which the drill applies; that they are used by all students, staff, and visitors; and that controls in place permit accounting for all building occupants.” Thus, drills assist administration in assessing preparedness of students and staff, as well as their own ability to account for school occupants in an emergency.
When conducting a drill, members of the school community should treat the drill like they would an emergency situation. If a drill is casually or sloppily done, the school community will not be able to perform at top level when an emergency situation occurs. This means that shortcuts on emergency procedures should not be taken in a drill. For example, all members of the school community should participate in drills, including school nurses, custodians, secretaries, bus drivers, and other support personnel. Additionally, the emergency and crisis response plan, protocols, and procedures should be followed as strictly as possible. For example, if a lockdown is in place, staff members and students should not let unauthorized individuals into their respective rooms until the drill is over. Considerations should be made, however, to the developmental maturity and mental health of students and staff when developing drills.
Drills — especially active shooter drills — can generate strong emotional responses from students and staff. While the goal of drills is to instruct and protect the school community, failure to conduct an appropriate drill can lead to physical or emotional harm. Participants in unannounced assailant drills conducted in the workplace have filed lawsuits against employers due to psychological and psychical harm sustained during or after the drill. Therefore, careful consideration should be given so that the drill sufficiently prepares the school community while also not subjecting it to unnecessary trauma.
Several steps may be taken to mitigate potential harm when a drill is conducted. First, the administration should make all reasonable efforts to accommodate and provide appropriate supports for students with a history of adverse or traumatic experiences that may be aggravated by unassisted participation in the drill. Second, teachers and staff members should be taught to recognize physical or emotional reactions, so that they may recognize if a student or staff member needs to be removed from the drill and/or given medical assistance.
What considerations impact the drafting or updating of an emergency and crisis response plan, protocols, and procedures?
The School Safety Drill Act requires each public school district to conduct a minimum of one meeting in which it will review and update each school building’s emergency and crisis response plan, protocols, and procedures, as well as each building’s compliance with school safety drill programs. The provision of the Act is broad and does not contain much guidance regarding content. The Illinois Administrative Code, however, states that there must be at least two components to the emergency and crisis response plan: a concept of operations and a description of the schools’ training and preparedness.
Illinois Administrative Code details that the emergency and crisis response plan must delineate the school’s concept of operations in the event of an emergency. More specifically, the school must detail the:
- Responsibilities of individuals who discover an emergency or crisis;
- Responsibilities of the leader/commander and other members of emergency team;
- Responsibilities of monitors who will ensure proper execution of planned response;
- Responsibility for communicating with first responders, building occupants, families, representatives of the media, and other members of the community; [and]
- Responsibility for maintaining emergency-related records.
In addition, the emergency and crisis response plan must provide a description of responses planned — “what should happen, when, and at whose direction” — if various emergencies occur. The Code includes a list of emergencies (severe weather, fire, structural failure, and others) that a school must provide a response for, but this list is not intended to be definitive. Finally, the emergency and crisis response plan must provide an inventory of available resources for responding to an emergency, such as an emergency contact list, methods for accounting for all school occupants, response guidance materials and methods of distributing these materials, and emergency supplies and equipment.
In addition to the school’s concept of operations, the Illinois Administrative Code states that a school must also provide information in the emergency and crisis response plan about its efforts to train and prepare its administrators, staff, and students. This description may be quite simple. For example, it can merely state training provided and materials used in the training. However, the school must also provide specific information about the school, as well as the records and results of the required and optional drills conducted.
In addition to required elements of the building’s emergency and crisis response plan, protocols, and procedures, there are various best practices to keep in mind when drafting or updating these documents. First, the building’s emergency and crisis response plan, protocols, and procedures should have clearly stated objectives. A staff member looking at these documents should be able to easily discern who should do what, under what conditions, and to what standards. If possible, avoid using codes, because staff members often struggle to remember numerous codes in a drill or emergency situation. For example, a recent security assessment of a school district found that one staff member referred to a “code purple” protocol that was not listed in any plan. Thus, the clearer the objectives are, the easier it will be to remember and follow them.
Second, the building’s emergency and crisis response plan, protocols, and procedures should account for students and staff with access and functional needs, as well as limited English proficiency. These students and staff members may be limited in their ability to react quickly and/or to respond to instruction. Thus, careful consideration should be given in drafting the plan, protocols, and procedures to ensure everyone’s safety.
Finally, meaningfully assess the performance of the school community immediately after a drill to determine whether the four objectives of the drill have been met. Was there proper notification and response? Was there efficient movement to safe areas? Was necessary information communicated to first responders? Was there an accurate accounting of all occupants in the building? It may be difficult to update the emergency and crisis response plan, protocols, and procedures if there is no record of how the drills went, whether there was any confusion exhibited by students or staff, or whether there were any unexpected problems. This information can be collected through a short debriefing with the drill planning team members or through simple conversations with staff members after the drills.
School Safety Drill Act: 105 ILCS 128/1 et seq.
Required drills: 105 ILCS 128/2
Required meetings: 105 ILCS 128/25
The Illinois Administrative Code
Objectives of Drills: 29 Ill. Admin. Code 1500.30
Responsibilities for operations in the event of an emergency: 29 Ill. Admin. Code 1500.20(a )(1).
Responses planned: 29 Ill. Admin. Code 1500.20(a )(2).
Inventory of responding resources in an emergency: 29 Ill. Admin. Code 1500.20(a )(3).
Training and preparation: 29 Ill. Admin. Code 1500.20(b).
National Association of School Psychologists, Best Practice Considerations for Schools in Active Shooter and Other Armed Assailant Drills (2014), available at tinyurl.com/iasbsafetydrills