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Answering the Question: “Who’s in Charge of This...?”

Kelly Moore
September 21, 2023

As we settle into the new school year, I typically ask schools to conduct their active threat drills: lockdowns based on a scenario I create. And that is not different this year. However, this year, I want to focus on how the administrators and district leadership respond to these incidents. We look at these drills and exercises from the individual building level. The high school will do their drill on a Tuesday, and the middle school will do their drill on a Thursday, but no one will interact with other schools or the district leadership. As we know, if we have an incident of any significance, the school impacted directly will need to communicate with many other schools and departments within the school district. So the question that needs to be asked and answered is: Who is in charge of this…? In your district, have you asked and answered that question? Have you defined the roles and responsibilities of your neighboring schools? What tasks will the impacted school complete, and which will someone else complete? In this edition, we will explore those and other questions to help you answer: Who is in charge of this…?

So, let’s start with a little Incident Command System refresher first. When an incident is triggered, the person who is readily available to initiate the command is the person in charge. That person is responsible for orchestrating the initial response to the incident. Typically, that person would be the principal, safety team leader, or some other person who was predesignated. This person should have received the training to manage and respond to an incident. Sometimes, the principal is not the one in charge. Some principals delegate the incident command role to someone on their team for the day-to-day operations and think they will assume command only when needed. However, if the principal does this, they can not expect to be the incident commander when the emergency occurs. If the principal hasn’t been involved in the drills and exercises regularly and doesn’t have the skills to manage an incident, an actual emergency is not the time they should learn what they should be doing. There needs to be a formal announcement to identify who is in charge so everyone is clear on who is in charge of the incident.

I had an incident involving a police shooting across from one of my high schools. As established, I went directly to the Incident Command Post to act as part of the unified command with the fire department and the sheriff’s department. We placed the school in “lockdown” and set up a perimeter to isolate the school from law enforcement incident. However, my superintendent left his office and drove to the school, thinking taking control of the incident was his job. He had not trained to assume command of an incident of this nature and did not have a plan. While he was trying to reach the school, he was stopped by the deputies and was not allowed to go to the school. He frantically called me so I could grant him access to the school. Of course, my response was to tell him he had two choices: He could come to the command post, or he could return to his office to handle “district-level” tasks from his office. He chose to return to his office.

After resolving the incident, I was appropriately called into his office. I let him vent his frustration with me and asked him why he wanted to go to the school. He responded that he wanted to support his staff and let them know he was there for them. I explained that the best way to support his staff during a crisis was to remove as many tasks as possible from those that they were juggling during that time. That means communicating with the school board, handling the formal communication from the district to the parents and media, identifying the resources needed to resolve the situation, etc. Obviously, I had not made that sufficiently clear before the event, and it was clarified for future events.

I can't identify all the tasks you are responsible for and then identify those tasks someone else is responsible for. The importance of having this conversation early and often cannot be understated. That being said, I can give you some tasks you are responsible for and some tasks others would be responsible for:

School Site:

  • Initial response actions and coordination
  • Establishing the incident command
  • Initiating the alert to move everyone into an emergency protective action
  • Notifying first responders and district leadership
  • Accounting for staff and students
  • Joining the Unified Command Group for the incident
  • Communication with district leadership throughout the incident
  • Initiating the reunification process
  • Communication with the parents who have made it to the scene and provide them with updates and instructions

District Leadership and Other Schools:

  • Convene the district’s safety team and cabinet members for quick decisions
  • External communications with the media and other schools and stakeholders
  • Authorize the support needed to resolve the incident
  • Document the incident
  • Resolve conflicts and ensure policies are followed
  • Maintain communication with the incident command and ensure the district’s interests are considered throughout the incident

The most important point is to have these conversations long before you have anything happen at your schools. And just as importantly, practice completing these tasks often, especially the communication between the schools and the district leadership team.

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