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A Helping Hand

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A federal grant program gives school districts the financial supportthey need to develop updated, comprehensive disaster plans.

A Helping Hand WHO COULD FORGET the harrowingimages of Greensburg, KS, after adeadly tornado in May leveled the smalltown and tore the local high school toshreds?

Just two months earlier, tornados pummeled several towns in neighboring Missouri. In Caulfield, MO, tornados touched down near the town's elementary school, killing 7-year-old Elizabeth Croney. In February, an elementary school in Derby, KS, was forced to go on lockdown while police arrested an armed suspect directly across the street.

And that's just one corner of the normally unperturbed Midwest. All across the country, schools must confront growing threats of every sort, from natural disasters, violent gangs, and would-be terrorists.

On May 10 in St. Louis—in that same quiet Midwest corner that had been on the receiving end of so much destruction— school district staff and administration from around the country gathered to receive training and information on emergency preparedness and response. Their host was the Department of Education's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, which made a point of explaining to the attendees how it intends to help them.

Every school has internal resources that can be used to improve anemergency plan. For instance, the photo club can help first responders bytaking pictures of the school, and prior to an incident, the drama clubcan assist with emergency drills by acting as victims.

The DoE has created the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools discretionary grant program (REMS)—formerly known as the Emergency Response and Crisis Management grant program. School districts receive REMS funds to be used to implement readiness training plans and update security equipment in their facilities.

Responding to 9/11

The need for government action became frighteningly clear after the terrorist attacks on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001.

"If you think back to 9/11, there were a lot of lessons learned from that incident," says Sara Strizzi, a program analyst for the DoE in Washington, DC. One of those lessons was the vulnerability of K- 12 campuses. "We realized that within the ground zero vicinity, there were a lot of schools close by."

Strizzi says the DoE discovered that, while many schools had emergency plans in place, very few of those plans reflected current realities. School districts needed help in developing comprehensive plans for emergencies, including natural disasters, violent incidents, and terrorist attacks. According to the department, since the inception of the REMS grant program in October 2003, 413 grants have been awarded to local educational agencies in 44 states and Puerto Rico.

Each year, school districts compete to receive the grant money—the password is collaboration. Applying districts must show that they will partner with local law enforcement, local government, and public health and safety officials to implement security measures.

"All of those partners need to give their buy-in to help foster relationships prior to an emergency situation," Strizzi says. "In the event of a disaster, it helps when school administrators are familiar with law enforcement agencies, and law enforcement agencies are familiar with school layouts."

Plans of All Sizes

Schools that are awarded REMS grants are encouraged to see the big picture and develop a comprehensive, sustainable plan; it's not as simple as adding a CCTV camera here and a DVR there.

PICK ME! PICK ME!

NOT EVERY SCHOOL DISTRICT CAN RECEIVE A FEDERAL GRANT.THE DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION OFFERS THESE TIPS ON HOWTO STAND OUT IN THE SELECTION PROCESS.

  • BUILD A TIGHT BOND WITH THE COMMUNITY. Strong community partnerships improve the overall outcomes of grants and ensure sustainability of project activities.
  • OBTAIN BUY-IN FROM THE TOP. Getting administrators on board can be challenging, so be creative and brainstorm the best ways to involve them in the grant selection process.
  • THINK TOWARD THE FUTURE. Training programs need to be developed with sustainability in mind and should be able to grow as needs change.
  • GET AN ESTIMATE OR TWO. Obtaining multiple reliable cost estimates is important before submitting the grant application.
  • ASSESS YOUR NEEDS. Successful projects clearly define needs and incorporate activities to address them.
  • THINK THINGS THROUGH. Evaluation plans should be well developed, and should outline objectives and measures.

Once you're ready, applications are available here, here, or here.

Take, for example, the Houston Independent School District, which in 2006 was awarded nearly $500,000 to enhance its emergency response and crisis management plan. The district was challenged with finding the right combination of new security equipment and disaster training programs. It's using the grant money to train district employees, students, and parents in emergency procedures, and is partnering with city and county security agencies to conduct mock emergency drills. In addition, the grants have enabled Houston ISD to purchase communication equipment for a mobile command post, which will travel to emergency sites and serve as a communications hub in the event a disaster occurs.

According to Strizzi, emergency plans must be based on specific local needs, whether that means incorporating disaster instructions in both English and Spanish or considering the special needs of a disabled population.

"There is no one-size-fits-all approach," she says. "The plan for a school in California might look different from a plan for a school in Florida—and that might look different from a plan for a school in Michigan."

She adds that plans also must cover multiple types of disasters, be they weather-related or man-made. San Juan Unified School District in California, for example, chose to focus the $500,000 it received in May on pandemic response planning, since the district is located near a nuclear power plant.

What About Us?

While hundreds of school districts have improved their emergency response plans through the REMS grant program, it's hardly an end-all solution to the issue of school security.

For the schools fortunate enough to receive grants, they may find that the money—though helpful and generous— quickly runs dry. The typical award for a smaller district with less than 20 school facilities is about $100,000 per 18- month period, while medium-sized districts with up to 75 facilities are likely to receive about $250,000. Large districts with more than 75 facilities may receive upwards of $500,000. In Houston's case, for the seventh-largest school district in the United States with nearly 300 schools and more than 200,000 students, half a million dollars only goes so far.

Clearly, not all school districts can be chosen to receive grants immediately. Those most in need are given preference, according to the DoE, which considers whether a district has received a grant before and whether it's located in an Urban Areas Security Initiative jurisdiction— high-threat, high-density cities such as Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, New York, or Washington, DC.

So how can schools without big budgets better protect themselves and the students within them? Not every security measure has to be costly, according to William Modzeleski, associate assistant deputy secretary of the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. Speaking at the St. Louis training session in early May, Modzeleski offered examples of how every school has internal resources that can be used to improve an emergency plan. For instance, the photo club can help first responders by taking pictures of the campus, and prior to an incident, the drama club can assist with emergency drills by acting as victims. School nurses are trained in first aid and should be used accordingly.

Additionally, the DoE's Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools Technical Assistance Center (www.ercm. org) exists to give school districts—especially those without REMS grants—tools to better protect themselves. The center offers a multitude of publications, phone and e-mail support, and twice-yearly training programs, like the one in St. Louis, Strizzi says.

Forward-thinking security integrators are more than capable of helping schools develop truly comprehensive plans, even on small budgets—not simply bringing in a metal detector to use as a gatekeeper. "Schools can use security consultants to provide strong building blocks they can later [build upon]," Strizzi says. "That's a more sustainable approach."

-Michelle Bowles is a freelance writerbased in Chicago.

This article originally appeared in the 10/01/2007 issue of THE Journal.

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