NATIONAL HARBOR, MD — When a deadly shooting took place at a business in Aurora, Illinois, in 2019, West Aurora School District 129 took the lead in communicating updates to the school community and the public in general.
It was a task the district embraced, knowing that first responders were busy and that the school community and area residents needed information from a reliable source, said school district officials during a Thursday session at the 2023 Association of School Business Officials annual conference.
That quick response occurred because the 11,000-student school district had planned for crisis situations. Part of that planning included forming relationships with area partners, such as police, other first responders, colleges, churches, and private schools, said Anna Gonzales, the district's director of community affairs.
"We're able to identify and address potential risks before they would escalate to a crisis, and comprehensive planning really ensures that all of our stakeholders are really well prepared in the event of an emergency," Gonzales said. "We firmly believe relationships matter."
Marti Neahring, the district's executive director of student and family services, added, "You never want to show up in that moment of crisis and be introducing yourself to these people for the first time."
Coordinating crisis preparation with community stakeholders could include holding regular meetings about risks and responses, as well as collaborating on problem solving, the district officials said.
For example, West Aurora conducts radio checks — checking that radios used for safety situations are working properly — with area parochial schools, knowing that those schools might have less capacity to respond to crises. That relationship shows taxpayers whose students don't attend public schools that the public school community cares about their children too, the officials said.
Additionally, a partnership with area churches means churches will provide space for student-parent reunifications in the event of emergencies, and in turn, schools donate space for church events, said Angela Smith, assistant superintendent of operations.
Another constituency that can't be ignored in school safety planning are contract staff who work in school buildings.
Smith said those workers should be included in safety training and in communications about emergency preparation so they know they can assist in safety efforts. "You need to treat them like your employee even if they're not on the payroll," Smith said.
Involve staff, parents and students
The West Aurora district has created a common language around emergency preparedness and response that aims to give stakeholders as much accurate information during a crisis as possible. The district, for instance, doesn't use the word "lockdown" and instead specifies the emergency, such as a tornado warning or water main break.
"The clearer that we can be … the more information you can give people, the less filling in the blanks they do and the blanks are usually wrong," Smith said. However, she added that some situations may require being more discreet.
In preparing for a crisis, the district conducts drills, including having students and staff move to "rally points, " which are typically about two blocks away from a school building. Even the district's 3- and 4-year-old students practice this, Smith said.
The district conducted another drill — only for staff and without students present — where police shot a gun in a school building so staff could learn what that sounds like.
Administrators also have role-played a reunification scenario to prepare school leaders for a variety of parent and student responses, as well as protocols that need to be followed. Although parents and students don't practice this protocol, the steps have been communicated to them.
In addition, the district maintains a school safety webpage with information about other safety policies and recommendations.