Plain Language in School Transportation Emergencies

Are You Using Plain Language?

The first in a line of students boarding their morning school bus whispers to the driver, “Johnny’s got a knife!”. The driver now faces a set of critical decisions within the next few seconds. What steps can he take that would not further complicate the situation? Should he immediately notify someone, call for help? If he uses plain language, will it initiate a confrontation?

Plain language to communicate!

Source: Racine County Eye

Current Practice?

Many fleets use codes to communicate the existence of a situation on their bus. I found this was the procedure in our school’s transportation department after taking responsibility for the fleet. If a driver suspected a weapon was on the bus, they would radio in to the base that they were “invited to the wedding.” This would alert the base, who would then call 911.

One of the reasons given to me for this practice was that alerting the person that help was on its way would cause them to act rashly. Another was that openly communicating the threat could traumatize children riding in other buses who could overhear the broadcast. I understood their reasoning, their desire to keep things from escalating, and the powerful need to protect children from harm. But, was it really in the best interest of the students and did it align with the best approach to dealing with such a situation?

Plain Language is best!

The gold standard of planning is the National Incident Management System (NIMS). It is the framework provided by the Department of Homeland Security for state and local entities. It prepares them to mitigate, respond to and recover from a hazard. The reason for the development of NIMS is to achieve inter-operability across agencies, jurisdictions and disciplines. At the local level, this requires communicating clearly, concisely, and in plain language, so authorities can prepare and respond in the most effective manner.

If there is someone with a weapon, authorities need to know the type of weapon and any other pertinent information. The use of codes can cloud their understanding of the actual situation and events. The faster the response, the less likely events will get out of hand. Every complication increases the time it takes to prepare and get the right people in the right place. Using a code limits the information that can be passed and is open to interpretation, which can add a large degree of uncertainty as to what is actually occurring.

 Simplify, Simplify, Simplify!

Research shows that a person under stress experiences numerous symptoms, among them a decline in cognitive function. They begin to lose the ability to think clearly. At such time, complications like a code only makes things more difficult for them.

During a critical moment on the school bus, the driver’s world narrows down to their bus and the person with the weapon. What a driver needs in such a high stress situation is simplicity. The fewer decisions they have to make, the more likely the choices made will be the right ones. Trying to remember a long list of procedures and codes is not something conducive to clear thinking.

The acronym often used in emergency planning is KISS, and plain language helps keep things simple.

 

It All Depends – Situational School Security

While school security experts typically recommend that fencing for schools permit open viewing to reduce crime, there are exceptions.  Because this Florida school serves a number of autistic children and has a swamp located next to this side of the school, the installation of screening materials to conceal the water is both logical and prudent as many autistic children are attracted to bodies of water.

While school security experts typically recommend that fencing for schools permit open viewing to reduce crime, there are exceptions. Because this Florida school serves a number of autistic children and has a swamp located next to this side of the school, the installation of screening materials to conceal the water is both logical and prudent as many autistic children are attracted to bodies of water.

School security measures can be situational

Many people desire absolute answers when it comes to school safety. There have been several attempts to create a national school security codes similar to that of the national fire code. Each of these efforts have failed for a variety of reasons. The lack of some types of data for violence prevention in contrast to the fire science field is one reason for this. In addition, the many types and methodologies for violence are perhaps more complex than fire is.   For example, when you install entry point metal detection at a school, an aggressor may simply shoot students on a school bus or as they wait in line to be screened. This means that the implementation of this approach can require additional solutions to prevent simply moving the attack site. When we install fire sprinklers in a school, the fire will not move to the parking lot to avoid the suppression system. Reviewing some of the standardized school security requirements that have been implemented at the state level reveals that these problems are a challenge even at that scale.

Setting standards can sometimes increase danger

Another reason it can be so difficult to establish set requirements for school security is that a textbook answer for most schools could increase danger in a school with a unique situation. As one example, while the research demonstrates that natural surveillance (improving the ability for people to see and be seen) reduces the opportunity for crime and the fear of crime, there are cases where improving natural surveillance can increase risk.   Some of our independent schools educate children of famous people who could be at risk for abduction or even murder. We have clients who have individual students assigned with armed bodyguards all day, every day by their parents. The abduction for ransom of the daughter of a prominent pasta company owner from a Florida independent school many years ago is an excellent example of this very real risk. A kidnapper posing as the father’s bodyguard signed the girl out from an independent school using a fake letter from the child’s father. She was buried in a box in a swamp and held for ransom. For this reason, we advise some of our independent school clients with this type of risk to use visual barriers on fencing for playgrounds contrary to the normal practice of maintaining open sightlines.

Sometimes it simply all depends on the details

As one professor in my graduate business school program told us many years ago, the correct answer is sometimes IAD – it all depends. When a student asked for a clear cut answer to a specific management issue, the professor explained that the correct answer would depend on specific variables. He was not dodging the question but instead cautioning us to take care not to create absolute answers when it would be less effective to do so. School and public safety officials should heed this advice.

When is it O.K. to Have Sex in K12 Schools?

This unlocked boiler room is the type of location where students sometimes engage in sexual activities.  Space management is an important concept for school officials to use to prevent both consensual sexual encounters and sexual assaults.

This unlocked boiler room is the type of location where students sometimes engage in sexual activities. Space management is an important concept for school officials to use to prevent both consensual sexual encounters and sexual assaults.

Sex in K12 Schools

Kevin Wren is a school safety professional in South Carolina who has attended several of my presentations. He recently sent me a link to a news story involving two New York City school teachers who were allegedly caught having sex in a classroom. Both teachers have been reinstated and will continue to teach in the same school because no students were present in the classroom when the alleged incident took place.

Kevin recalled me asking audiences the important rhetorical question “when is it acceptable for people to have sex in K12 schools?”  This case is an excellent example of why I sometimes have this discussion with audiences when I keynote conferences.

Of Course not!

Obviously the correct answer is that it is never acceptable for people to engage in sex in K12 schools. My follow up question to the audience is “but do people have sex in K12 schools?” The answer to that question is that this occurs far more often than the average person realizes. Whether the sexual acts involve a sexual assault or molestation, consensual acts between students, consensual acts between a student and an employee or as in this recent case, and allegation of consensual sex between adults, sex on K12 campuses are a serious problem.

A Significant and Recurring Problem in Schools

Over the years, there have been too many examples of these types of problems to count. I am currently working as an expert witness on two such cases and have just been asked to review a third case involving an allegation of this type for a law firm that is attempting to determine if they should litigate school officials or not. I have seen many troubling cases of this type covered in the national news including one incident where someone videotaped a school principal having sex with a teacher, posted it on the web, and sent it to school board members. I declined a case where a district was being litigated in federal court which involved seven students having sex with a special needs child for more than one hour. I had been asked to conduct a security assessment for the district in their attempt to address the event. In this particular case, I was approached by both defense and plaintiff’s counsel but I advised them both that I felt there would be a conflict of interest.

Preventing Sexual Assault and Sexual Misconduct in Schools

This recent school sex scandal demonstrates the need for thoughtfully developed and clearly communicated policies for students and staff that are designed to minimize the opportunities for incidents involving sexual assault and sexual misconduct to occur. The policies can include structured student supervision, requiring employees to keep unattended spaces locked, prohibiting school staff from covering classroom and office windows (with exceptions for emergency situations such as lockdown), and guidance on staff and students being alone in private areas.

While no measures are foolproof, implementing, communicating and enforcing appropriate practices can help to prevent these types of incidents as well as to make it easier to respond to them more effectively should an incident occur.