School Shootings are a Tragic Reminder of the Need for Emergency Preparedness at Institutions of Higher Learning

It seems that school shootings are happening nearly every week in the United States. And in light of this painful and disturbing reality, many schools are being forced to rethink the way they plan for major crises. Elementary schools, high schools, even colleges and other institutions of higher learning are all at risk for these disturbing events.

Of course, the primary focus in any crisis must be the safety of students, staff, and faculty. Universities and colleges are responsible to do all they can for their students and the faculty and staff that help everything run smoothly.

Once safety is established, the institution can assess other components of campus recovery and continuity. The school must continue to function on a basic level once a situation is resolved. How prepared is your institution for emergencies? How does your institution’s level of preparedness compare with others in the same field?

Resilience, During and After a Crisis

First, let’s talk about resilience. Resilience is a term that emergency preparedness experts use to quantify an institution’s ability to recover from a major catastrophic event. Can the institution protect its faculty, staff, students, and physical assets during the emergency? How quickly can it return to business after the danger is past? Can the institution bounce back from the crisis without creating hardship on the campus community?

Resilience also has to do with the way an institution or school handles smaller crises and minor disruptions. The establishment should be able to recover quickly and return to its mission, which is serving employees (staff and faculty) and customers (students and their parents.)

Recent Trends Among Emergency Management Professionals

A recent emergency management study showed that nearly 30% of higher education institutions are not resilient. Jennifer Adams, MPA, delivered a survey to emergency management employees at various higher ed institutions. Her findings show there is room for improvement in higher ed business continuity planning.

When asked the question, “Do you consider your IHE to be resilient?” around 71% of participants said yes. Unfortunately, another 29% said “no” or “maybe.” That’s about 30% of higher education institutions who may or may not be ready to face a crisis situation — and that lack of preparedness can put the future of the establishment at risk, not to mention the lives of students and staff.

When asked, “Is your school prepared to respond and recover from a major crisis through a coordinated, efficient effort?” twenty percent of respondents answered “maybe.” That’s a scary number of “maybes,” especially with this year’s spike in school shootings. Add to that the fact that 72% of survey participants are concerned about their institutions’ plans for continuity of operations, and you have a potentially disastrous picture.

See the full infographic detailing Adams’ findings.

How to Prepare for a Crisis

What’s the answer to all the uncertainty and danger facing educational institutions today? While the politicians and activists pursue various solutions, schools have one job — to plan and prepare.

First, find out what your institution needs to do to achieve accreditation with the Emergency Management Accreditation Program (EMAP). Review any current plans you have in place for a crisis, and beef them up with additional mitigation plans as needed.

“In times of disasters, colleges and universities serve as key emergency management partners to federal, state, local, tribal, territory and private sector organizations. Institutions are encouraged to regularly review, update and exercise their emergency plans.” – Department of Homeland Security

Mitigation plans can provide a significant benefit to your university. Mitigation efforts help to avoid future disasters, while continuity plans outline what to do after a disaster has occurred. For example, an action item in a mitigation plan might include backing up all the research data stored on university computers. A continuity plan would include recovering lost data.

Next, present the administration with some hard facts about the challenges and potential crises facing your institution. The Kuali Ready team found that 63% of higher education business continuity planners agree that leadership support increases institutional engagement in continuity plans. You’ll need the full financial support and cooperation from your college or university if you’re going to create plans that actually work.

“It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it.” – Warren Buffett

If you are struggling to achieve support from administration leaders, see our guide “Leadership Support in Higher Education Business Continuity Planning.” Keep in mind that you may need funds to hire additional team members with experience in emergency management.

Go back to past crises, both on your campus and others. You can do this by visiting Kuali Ready webinars, a collection of case study resources by Northwestern University, or simply using google to find business continuity events. As you go through these resources, ask yourself questions and write them down to discuss with department chairs and administrators later on.

Questions to Ask
  • How did the institution respond?
  • What went well?
  • What could have been handled more effectively?
  • Would my campus be prepared for (insert event from case study) event?

Incorporate what you learn into your own emergency planning. Remember, your plan needs to include coverage and continuity for all essential services on campus. Steve Morash, Director of Emergency Management at Boston University, reminded continuity planners to think about everything – including medical animals.

“I’ve got 30,000 mice on my research campus to care for [on top of hundreds of students and faculty]. You need to make sure you take care of your research animals too.” – Steve Morash

Once there’s a robust plan in place, enact training across all departments. Make sure that each person knows how the emergency plan affects him or her, and understands his or her role in recovery and continuity.


Tabletop trainings are the best way to train your faculty and staff on a continuity plan. And, according to Tonya Coultas, it doesn’t matter what scenario you use. It could be an active shooter, a natural disaster, or a power outage – a crisis is a crisis.

After you decide on a situation, define 3-5 goals or objectives for the tabletop training. What are you trying to learn or gain from the exercise? Share the goals or objectives with the attendees before the training. This way, they will see the value in the exercise.

One key objective might be to create a communication strategy following an event. When something unexpected happens, with whom does the university need to communicate? Perhaps the institution only needs to share information with administrators, students, faculty and staff. But maybe governing bodies, parents, and local first responders should be included as well. How often should the institution communicate with the selected parties? And what should it say? Be informed about possible laws or requirements on the university or college following an emergency situation.

Make sure you invite the right people. Invite senior executives and administrators. Include local government officials and law enforcement. You could even extend an invitation to a representative from the nearest hospital.

As you reach out to different parties, inform each of its role before the training. Are the two attending policemen active participants, evaluators, or observers? Defining different roles will help you get enough (but not too much) dialogue from the participants.

Finally, make sure to follow through with any tasks you were assigned after the training. By completing your assigned items quickly, your example displays the importance of the training and its takeaways.

Additional Tools for Continuity Planning

Building an effective, flexible continuity plan for your IHE is a complex procedure. A turnkey solution like Kuali Ready can walk you through the planning process, step by step, so you don’t miss anything. East Carolina University used Kuali Ready to do just that. “I really am a believer that the process of planning is more beneficial than actually having a plan itself,” said Lauren Mink, a Continuity and Emergency Planner at the university. In 2016, ECU was hit by Hurricane Matthew.

“The folks who have been through the business continuity training or planning process knew what to do. They knew who was responsible for what, they knew how to prioritize their functions and when or when not to report to campus. That is all part of the planning process.” – Lauren Mink

With help from a carefully crafted, out of the box solution like Kuali Ready, you can store your plans in a safe place with one true source, add as much detail as needed, communicate effectively with your team, and support your institution through a crisis. Your students and staff are depending on you!

To learn more or request a demo, write to

Jennifer Adams on Higher Education Resilience

Author Annie Bartlett

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