Recent events in Washington and nationally have increased public awareness of school safety issues and emergency preparedness. State law requires schools and districts to develop a comprehensive safety plan to protect students and staff from a multitude of risks.
However, school district surveys conducted by the Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) and the federal Department of Education revealed areas where school safety planning practices fell short of requirements or guidance. The greatest areas of weakness were plan development, oversight, training, and coordination.
This performance audit asked school districts and other stakeholders about the challenges they thought contributed to these gaps. We also asked them to describe any practices they had in place that could help address the statewide gaps. The audit offers districts a chance to learn from each other. It also makes recommendations specifically aimed at improving the state’s efforts.
School safety planning does not always get the attention or resources it requires, in part because it has to compete with other, more immediate demands placed on schools. However, school and community leaders must not lose sight of the value in basic planning and collaboration. In the event of a natural disaster or other emergency, that work could save lives.
The purpose of this audit was to identify concrete, cost-effective processes and programs already happening in Washington, so schools and districts can learn from one another and narrow some of the gaps in their plans. We found the biggest opportunities in the area of collaboration with other key players in safety preparedness and response, including police and firefighters, other government emergency management experts, and neighboring school districts.
School district officials and their elected boards should explore this audit and take note of ideas that might apply to their area, then work toward greater collaboration and coordination.
Every school district is required by law to have a comprehensive safety plan. These plans prepare schools and districts to address risks that students or staff might face, including building threats, active shooters and natural disasters. Federal guidance suggests that preventative elements contributing to a positive school climate, such as prevention of suicide and bullying, also be taken into consideration when forming a safety plan. According to state law, a comprehensive safety plan should address emergency mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery. The law also specifies required safety planning activities as part of the plan, such as utilizing certain training guidance and setting guidelines for coordinating with first responders.
Schools that have a comprehensive school safety plan can inform staff, students and parents what actions to take in an emergency, while working closely with first responders on proper training and drills.
Accountability is lacking
Although state law requires districts to have a comprehensive safety plan, there are no mechanisms in place to ensure they are complete. The law does not require school districts to regularly review their plans or submit documentation to a higher authority. It only suggests they do this “to the extent funds are available.” And while certain components of a safety plan are mandatory, no state or local agency must review plans or ensure they meet requirements. Responsibility for ensuring complete safety plans is left entirely up to school districts.
District leaders often face many competing priorities that may limit the time and attention they give to safety issues. Superintendents may prioritize things they’re more personally held accountable for, such as test scores. Districts reported that the leaders’ experience and enthusiasm affects how they prioritize safety, which in turn effects how comprehensive each district’s plan is likely to be.
Furthermore, while the state provides money to districts for school safety, it is not restricted. This means districts may choose to use these funds for other purposes. Several districts noted that minimal funding was being put toward safety needs and was instead diverted to other expenses like textbooks.
Stakeholders singled out two programs where under-funding plays a significant role in each program’s success or limitations: the School Safety Center and Rapid Responder.
In 2001, the Legislature established OSPI’s School Safety Center to serve as a central, statewide resource for school districts’ safety planning. The list of tasks assigned to the Center is long. It includes reviewing and approving manuals and curricula for models and training, acting as a resource center during an incident, and maintaining an informational website. However, the program has not received a budget increase in 15 years. This amount does not even fully fund the Center’s one full-time employee, who is expected to provide safety planning services and guidance to all 295 school districts.
In 2003, the Legislature directed the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs (WASPC) to create a statewide mapping information system for government buildings. The resulting Rapid Responder system, developed by a third-party vendor and managed by WASPC, contains maps of many Washington public schools. Using it, first responders can access tactical pre-plans, satellite and geospatial imagery, interior and exterior photos, floor plans, staging areas, hazardous materials, utility shut-offs and evacuation routes. Although the state requires everyone to use Rapid Responder to conduct safety drills, funding for WASPC to continue mapping new and renovated schools was discontinued in 2016.
Mapping system use varies
The unstable funding for Rapid Responder affects its use among both districts and responders. While the Legislature has continued to provide some funding, WASPC reported it is unstable from year to year. In most years, it is only enough to pay the software vendor and one trainer for the entire state.
The system is most efficient when all districts use Rapid Responder regularly — to update building maps, to document revised plans, to schedule, conduct and report on drills. Reassured the information is up to date, emergency services in turn rely on it during an incident. But at present, this is not always the case.
Some school districts are reluctant to use Rapid Responder because they struggle to learn how to use it and believe its inconsistent funding might eventually disappear altogether. First responders observe some districts haven’t updated their information in the system since 2008. As a result, first responders are reluctant to use Rapid Responder — and school districts, seeing emergency services don’t use it, use it less and less themselves. This creates a circular problem of inconsistent system use across the state.
Coordination is key
Conversations with districts and stakeholders confirmed that coordination underpins all other efforts to close gaps in school safety planning. Two avenues for improved coordination stand out: cross-community cooperation and regional coordination.
Several districts share ideas and conserve resources through established groups that meet at the county or cross-county level. Such groups can offer a forum for key stakeholders to provide expertise to school districts. Group meetings eliminate the need for stakeholders to attend multiple meetings and allow for peer feedback. Likely results include greater plan consistency across communities while adding an extra layer of accountability and lessening individual schools’ workloads.
Regional safety coordination can be achieved through the state’s nine educational service districts (ESDs). An ESD providing regional level oversight could generate even more consistent safety preparations and on a larger scale, helping address the gaps that persist statewide. Although the Legislature has recognized that ESDs are well placed to establish regional safety centers, school districts must be willing and able to pay for the extra services of the safety center. ESDs reported that for this reason, district buy-in can be a challenge. Establishing such safety centers would also require one agency to lead the effort.
In order to increase statewide coordination and school safety planning accountability, and therefore help address the identified gaps, we recommend OSPI:
Determine the resources required to implement a regional school safety program through the ESDs and make the necessary funding request to the Legislature
As funding permits, lead the effort to implement the regional school safety program
To help address the issues that the audit identified around the Rapid Responder program, we recommend that the Washington Association of Sheriffs and Police Chiefs:
3. Determine resources required for a comprehensive review of the statewide school mapping system and make the necessary funding request to the Legislature
4. As funding permits, convene a work group to consider the mapping system’s current use and capabilities.