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Coordination Vital to School Emergency Preparedness

Coordination Vital to School Emergency Preparedness Homeland Security TodayMany serious threats, from active shooters to natural disasters, put America’s 50 million public school children at risk. Although efforts to improve school safety have increased substantially in response to the recent spate of school shootings, federal agencies need to improve interagency collaboration on school emergency preparedness, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report.

The GAO report was jointly requested by Homeland Security Chairman Michael McCaul (R-TX), Border and Maritime Security Subcommittee Chairwoman Martha McSally (R-AZ), Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee Chairman Dan Donovan (R-NY), Rep. Susan Brooks, and Ranking Member of the Emergency Preparedness, Response, and Communications Subcommittee Donald Payne Jr. (D-NJ).

“The ultimate goal is to better protect our children by identifying inefficiencies and security gaps in emergency preparedness plans at schools across our nation. We must work together to support state and local efforts to prevent, protect, mitigate, respond to, and recover from a potential emergency. The better coordinated security planning efforts are, the better protected our children will be,” Chairman McCaul, Rep. McSally, Rep. Donovan, Rep. Brooks, and Rep. Payne said in a statement.

Prior to this report, it had been almost nine years since GAO conducted a review on the state of school emergency preparedness. In 2007, GAO found that most school districts developed emergency operations plans and GAO made recommendations to improve emergency planning.

The new report outlines the need for federal agencies to improve the strategic coordination of the resources devoted to the support of school emergencies.

GAO determined that the lack of a coordinated federal strategy for school emergency preparedness risks wasting federal resources on potentially duplicative, overlapping, or fragmented efforts. While federal agencies provide financial and technical assistance to states and localities to better respond to school emergencies, a number of surveyed school districts were unaware of these resources.

“Insufficient coordination may compromise the ability of federal agencies to effectively support district and school emergency preparedness efforts, and risks hindering such planning to help protect students and staff in emergencies,” said GAO.

Following on the heels of the shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2013, the Departments of Homeland Security, Justice, and Health and Human Services jointly developed a Guide for Developing High-Quality School Emergency Operations Plans as a key component of a White House initiative to reduce gun violence at schools.

The guide is the primary federal resource for assisting schools in emergency planning. It provides schools with a six-step emergency planning process similar to the process established by the Federal Emergency Management Agency for state and local emergency management planning.

According to a GAO survey, 35 states, which represents a majority of school districts, provide the guide to their districts. However, only 2 of the 12 schools the federal investigators visited were familiar with the guide. GAO said it is unclear why there is limited awareness of the federal guide by districts nationwide.

To fully address the safety needs of schools, federal agencies need to address gaps in interagency coordination. GAO found that agencies that collaborate offer different interpretations of the same federal guidance, relevant agency officials are not always aware of each other’s efforts and resources, and not all relevant agencies are included in collaboration efforts.

The lack of a well-coordinated federal effort may hinder the ability of federal agencies to effectively address the complex emergency management needs of schools.

“Education officials said that, especially since the issuance of the federal guide, federal agencies currently face challenges around coordination, resulting in efforts that have developed organically and incidentally and without a strategic focus,” said GAO. “Specifically, with their limited resources, agencies determine their priorities and initiatives—and the resources devoted to them—on an individual agency basis; meanwhile, the emergency management and safety needs of schools are numerous and complex.”

In response, GAO recommended that the Department of Education convene its federal interagency partners to develop a strategic approach to interagency collaboration on school emergency preparedness, consistent with leading practices.

 

The Department of Education concurred with GAO’s recommendation.

 

 

Homeland Security Todayhttp://www.hstoday.us
The Government Technology & Services Coalition's Homeland Security Today (HSToday) is the premier news and information resource for the homeland security community, dedicated to elevating the discussions and insights that can support a safe and secure nation. A non-profit magazine and media platform, HSToday provides readers with the whole story, placing facts and comments in context to inform debate and drive realistic solutions to some of the nation’s most vexing security challenges.

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