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Do Students and Staff Know What To Do During a Violent-Emergency?

Joshua Hendrix, Research Scientist, RTI International

Dr. Hendrix discusses a 3-year, NIJ-funded study to assess what students and staff in 10 American schools know about the emergency procedures in their school safety plans. Identify main gaps in knowledge and highlight any characteristics in schools, students, and faculty members that might be related to their overall understanding of those procedures.

JOSH HENDRIX: So my NIJ-funded project is a three-year study under the comprehensive school safety initiative. And through this, we are trying to assess what students and staff in 10 American schools know about their emergency procedures from their school safety plans. We are trying to identify what are the main gaps in knowledge, as well as highlight any characteristics of schools themselves, students, or faculty members that might be related to their overall levels of comprehension.

We wanted to study this because federal data has been telling us for a long time that almost all schools do have some kind of safety plan. But research has told us virtually nothing about what the typical teacher or counselor or principal even knows about what’s in that plan. And, obviously, if people don’t know what’s in the plan, it becomes pretty meaningless. Along with that, we’ve seen a number of post-crisis assessment reports from school shootings in which we have seen people don’t always follow the procedures as they are written. And, you know, that could potentially indicate that they just didn’t know what to do. And, obviously, that can have a real impact on the outcome of the event.

I think the most unique contribution is this just has not been looked at in any kind of systematic way before. What we know, right now, is really just based off of speculation from school security consultants, who do have some really great insight. But we have not seen any empirical research to suggest that people, you know, are lagging behind or do need more support, or maybe they’re doing great and really do know their safety plans. It’s important that we get a sense of: How much do people know, and are they ready to respond?

For one, I think it’s important to point out that our schools, in our sample, are doing some really innovative things to train and educate their students and staff on what’s in the safety plan and what to do during an emergency. And in a lot of ways, those efforts are paying off.

But we’re also seeing a great deal of confusion. We’re seeing that, you know, people tend to be confused about the difference between different procedures—a lockdown versus a lockout. Or, “What is a shelter in place and when to do it?” It’s also not uncommon for us to see that people describe actions that are not described in their safety plan, possibly suggesting discrepancies between what they’re hearing from training and education and what’s actually written down. And then we also see that people often think it’s OK to just rely on others to give them instructions during a crisis. So they don’t think they need to know. So there’s obviously a great deal of room for improvement, and especially among non-instructional staff. So the people who do work in the cafeterias, or custodians, or counselors, to some extent, they tend to know the least about their safety plans.

I have been interested in violence prevention and school safety for a long time, but have been fortunate to get more directly involved because of NIJ’s comprehensive school safety initiative. Through that, with NIJ investing in best practices and strategies for improving school safety. It has provided researchers like me with so many opportunities to study real problems and challenges that schools are facing and to come up with some actionable solutions that they can actually use to improve the security of their schools. From the outset, we’ve been grateful to NIJ for believing in our ideas, giving us the support and resources to carry out what are often very ambitious, very complex projects that wouldn’t be possible otherwise.

Date Created: June 19, 2020