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La Educación
Número: (115) II
Año: 1993

What Is the Role of School Administrators?

School administrators are typically mandated by legislation with the responsibility for the safety of the students under their care. This responsibility requires the school staff, as a minimum, to gauge the hazards inherent in their school environment, plan the response to these hazards, and undertake such actions as are necessary to recover from these crisis situations. These activities may be divided into two general time frames: pre-impact and post-impact.

Pre-impact Activities

To be better prepared for disaster, school staff members need to understand disasters and their implications for the school. This requires knowledge of three key aspects: (1) the risks inherent in the school’s internal and external environments; (2) the potential effects of a disaster on the school facility and its inhabitants; (3) the means by which either the likelihood of disasters can be minimized, or their consequences can be mitigated.

Effective disaster preparedness is based on two key components—education and planning (LaValla, Stoffel, and Erwin 1991; Quarantelli 1985). Both components must be addressed at all three levels: the school, the school system, and the community.

The “educational component” requires that knowledge about disaster risks and response efforts be shared with students, and through them, with their parents. Parents and students who are informed will also be better able to properly respond to disasters whenever and wherever they occur. Furthermore, informed parents may also be able to exert the necessary political pressure to bring about more concrete emergency planning.

Schools also have tremendous potential for educating the public at large. Courses relevant to disasters and crisis management could greatly benefit the public, but are often conspicuously absent (Quarantelli 1989). To correct this shortfall, elementary schools can send flyers home with the children to advise their parents about disaster procedures, organizational responsibilities, and key contact persons. Secondary school students can be involved in discussions on local incidents, how they were responded to, and what steps the students could take to better prepare them for similar incidents in the future.

Effective response to disasters demands an ability to interact with a multitude of agencies, to use a variety of organizational structures and communication channels, and to acquire resources and assistance with which to respond to the disaster. These “teams” are critical to successful disaster response operations (Auf der Heide 1989; Drabek and Hoetmer 1991; Comfort 1988). By association, emergency planning necessitates similar team effort. Emergency planning, in a school context, requires school administrators to operate simultaneously in three separate, yet interlinked, teams.

The first planning step requires the creation of a school crisis team which will be able to handle low level emergencies and disasters at the school. School administrators should be actively involved in the crisis team of their school system—the board, district, or governing body. As well, they should also be involved in the planning team for their community.

Disaster response teams must include all the major players who would be required to respond to the school’s potential disasters. A crisis period is not the time to build communication and support networks, establish procedures, identify resources, develop authority lines and responsibilities, or determine who can do what for whom. All of that should be established during the pre-impact period, and must be incorporated into a “plan”. Furthermore, this plan will best serve its purpose if it is widely known and well rehearsed.

Disaster preparedness could, but need not, be an awesome task for school administrators. A great deal of help is available to schools from external resources. Every order of government has an organization with the responsibility for emergency preparedness and response.

At the municipal level there are numerous organizations which form a formal or informal network. These organizations typically include members of the police and fire departments, health professionals (e.g., ambulance and hospital personnel), rescue teams, and local volunteer groups. School administrators have much to gain by being a part of these networks. They may, for example, be better positioned to identify accurately what it is that they can or cannot provide to their community. Without this input, they risk the possibility that someone at the community level will decide for them what school resources will be used and how.

By being part of the disaster management team, school officials may also be in a better position, in a disaster, to maintain control over their school facility and resources. Furthermore, they may become more effective in securing the type of support which their school may require during a disaster.

Emergency preparedness at the national level often includes public education and support to organizations undertaking disaster preparedness. Emergency Preparedness Canada and the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the United States provide a wide range of services, programs, and resources. Additionally, the various provinces (in Canada), states (in the United States), or regions (in other countries) have organizations tasked with emergency preparedness and response. These too could be of assistance to schools, school systems, and communities.

Post-impact Activities

At the onset of a disaster the school administrator’s key task is to implement the emergency or disaster plan which, one hopes, has been well thought out, documented, publicized, and rehearsed. School administrators must ensure the following:
  • The immediate safety of their staff members, students, and any visitors to their premises;
  • The immediate treatment of those injured at the school;
  • The identification of the degree of damage to the school facility and its potential for use by others;
  • The security of their facilities and key resources which may be needed for disaster response efforts;
  • The establishment of contact with their school system’s and the community’s disaster response networks;
  • The activation of a system to respond to queries by parents and the media;
  • The activation of a process of returning students to their parents, or to community organizations which would temporarily care for them.
One of the difficulties for crisis managers is that they must manage the crisis along two critical time frames—current and future. School administrators would likely be in a similar bind. On the one hand, they would have to overcome the disruptive and damaging effects of the disaster. On the other hand, they would be required to plan for the resumption of school operation and a way to defuse the traumatic effects of the disaster on students and staff members. These administrators would have to demonstrate patience, flexibility, and creativity, especially in the use of much-needed resources.