Emergency Management:

Most School Districts Have Developed Emergency Management Plans, but Would Benefit from Additional Federal Guidance

GAO-07-609: Published: Jun 12, 2007. Publicly Released: Jun 12, 2007.

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Congress has raised concerns over emergency management in school districts, with a particular interest in how federal agencies provide assistance to school districts. GAO was asked to assess (1) the roles of federal and state governments and school districts in establishing requirements and providing resources to school districts for emergency management planning, (2) what school districts have done to plan and prepare for emergencies, and (3) the challenges, if any, school districts have experienced in planning for emergencies, and communicating and coordinating with first responders, parents, and students. To obtain this information, GAO interviewed federal officials, surveyed a stratified random sample of all public school districts, surveyed state education agencies and state administering agencies, conducted site visits to school districts, and reviewed relevant documents.

Although there are no federal laws requiring all school districts to have emergency management plans, most states and school districts reported having requirements for such planning, and federal and state governments and school districts provide financial and other resources. Thirty-two states reported having laws or other policies requiring school districts to have emergency management plans. The Departments of Education (Education) and Homeland Security (DHS) and state governments as well as school districts provide funding for emergency management planning in schools. DHS awards grants to states and local jurisdictions that may provide some of these funds to school districts and schools for emergency management planning. However, DHS program guidance for certain grants does not clearly identify school districts as entities to which state and local governments may disburse grant funds. Thus, states receiving DHS funding may not be aware that such funding could be allocated to school districts or schools. Most school districts have taken federally recommended steps to plan and prepare for emergencies, including the development of emergency management plans, but many plans do not include recommended practices. Based on GAO's survey of school districts, most school districts, those with and without plans, have undertaken a variety of recommended practices to prepare for emergencies such as conducting school drills and exercises. In addition, based on GAO's survey of school districts, an estimated 95 percent of all school districts have written emergency management plans, but the content varies. While most school districts have procedures in their plans for staff roles and responsibilities, for example, school districts have not widely employed such procedures as, academic instruction via local radio or television, for continuing student education in the event of an extended school closure, such as might occur during a pandemic. Likewise, while many districts have procedures for special needs students, GAO found during site visits that some of these procedures may not fully ensure the safety of these students in an emergency. Finally, while most school districts practice their emergency management plans annually within the school community, GAO estimates that over one-quarter of school districts have never trained with any first responders and over two-thirds of school districts do not regularly train with community partners on how to implement their school district emergency management plans. Many school districts experience challenges in planning for emergencies, and some school districts face difficulties in communicating and coordinating with first responders and parents, but most do not have such challenges with students. Based on GAO's survey of school districts, in many school districts officials struggle to balance priorities related to educating students and other administrative responsibilities with activities for emergency management and consider a lack of equipment, training for staff, and personnel with expertise in the area of emergency planning as challenges. In an estimated 39 percent of school districts with emergency management plans, officials experienced a lack of partnerships, limited time or funding to plan, or lack of interoperability between equipment used by school districts and first responders. In interviews, about half of the officials in the 27 school districts GAO visited reported difficulty in ensuring that parents received consistent information from the district during an emergency.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: DHS collaborated with Education to develop a newsletter that included specific recommendations for fostering interagency collaboration and training efforts between schools, first responders and other community partners. The newsletter was posted to Education's website in August 2008.

    Recommendation: To promote training between school districts and first responders and between school districts and community partners on how to implement district emergency management plans, the Secretaries of DHS and Education should identify the factors that prevent school districts, first responders, and community partners from training together and develop strategies for addressing those factors. These strategies should include the continued use of any current resources that could facilitate joint training. DHS and Education should share the strategies with school districts, first responders, and community partners and encourage them to consider implementing the strategies as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In comments on the report, Education stated that the Department has shared, in training activities, strategies used by certain grantees for sheltering or evacuating special needs students. In January 2008, Education posted on its website, a summary of best practices for building design that incorporates ADA compliance requirements and effective evacuation procedures for students with special needs and disabilities. In December 2007 and January 2008, Education, FEMA, and HHS hosted virtual meetings on the special considerations and successful procedures for sheltering and evacuating individuals with special needs or disabilities. In May 2008, they held a Webinar on this topic that identified best practices. In August 2008, Education posted a tool that identifies successful procedures for evacuating or sheltering individuals with special needs or disabilities.

    Recommendation: To help school districts shelter or evacuate students with special needs and temporarily disabled students in an emergency, the Secretary of Education, in collaboration with the Secretaries of DHS and HHS, should examine and identify successful procedures for sheltering and removing such students from school buildings and share these procedures with school districts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  3. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: Education noted that since fiscal year 2006, grantees under the Emergency Response and Crisis Management grant program have been required to develop a written plan for responding to infectious disease that require a school closure. In December 2007, Education and HHS hosted a conference call with federal, state, and local officials that discussed strategies designed to support continuation of educational services during an extended period of school closure. Education also developed guidance for continuing learning in the event of a severe flu pandemic, which was posted to its website in January 2008. In May 2008, Education prepared a summary of best practices and recommendations in the event of an extended school closure, developed by selected school districts.

    Recommendation: To address the lack of procedures for continuing student education in the event of an extended school closure, the Secretary of Education should collaborate with the Secretary of HHS in his role as head of the lead agency on pandemics, to examine and identify successful strategies for developing such procedures and provide guidance to school districts on how to include the resulting procedures for the continuation of student education in their emergency management plans. These agencies may consider providing specific suggestions for states and districts to work with state education agencies, health departments, and local community organizations in the process of developing these procedures.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In its initial comments on the report, FEMA/DHS stated that it would continue to reaffirm that school districts are eligible entities of DHS State Homeland Security Grant funds as it administers its preparedness grant programs. In FY11, FEMA reported that it had indeed reaffirmed school districts' eligibility, re-emphasizing it during site visits, monitoring visits, workshops, and other forums.

    Recommendation: To help address the challenges school districts face in planning for emergencies, the Secretary of DHS should clarify that school districts are among those entities to which state and local governments may disburse grant funds received through the State Homeland Security Program, Urban Areas Security Initiative, and Citizens Corps grant programs. This should be done through its guidance for these programs so that states and local governments will know they can disburse these program funds to school districts.

    Agency Affected: Department of Homeland Security

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In comments provided on the report, Education noted that it would identify some common barriers to collaboration between school districts and first responders through the experiences of its Emergency Response and Crisis Management grantees, as well as coordinate with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS). In collaboration with DHS, Education developed a newsletter that included specific recommendations for fostering interagency collaboration and training efforts between schools, first responders and other community partners. The newsletter was posted to Education's website in August 2008.

    Recommendation: To promote training between school districts and first responders and between school districts and community partners on how to implement district emergency management plans, the Secretaries of DHS and Education should identify the factors that prevent school districts, first responders, and community partners from training together and develop strategies for addressing those factors. These strategies should include the continued use of any current resources that could facilitate joint training. DHS and Education should share the strategies with school districts, first responders, and community partners and encourage them to consider implementing the strategies as appropriate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Education

 

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