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Louisiana’s School Emergency Plans Need Improving

The state has required all schools to develop an emergency plan since 2001, but some public schools still don’t have one or their plans don’t meet updated requirements.

About one third of public schools in Louisiana do not have crisis and response plan that meet best practices and legal requirements and some schools don't have a plan at all, according to an informational report prepared by the Louisiana Legislative Auditor's Office.

State law has required all schools to develop an emergency plan since 2001 and several laws have been passed since then to address school safety. Those plans can be enacted during a variety of events, including severe weather, hazardous material spills or acts of violence.

But some Louisiana public schools didn't have an Emergency Operations Plan (EOP) or didn't meet requirements such as focusing on the prevention of loss of life, updating staff on plan revisions or sharing plans with emergency responders like the police chief, sheriff or local emergency preparedness office, the auditor's office found.

The report noted several matters that the legislature may want to consider because of the report's findings: requiring school districts designate a school safety coordinator who would be responsible for ensuring an EOP is developed for each school in the district; authorizing a state entity to establish accountability measures for noncompliance; requiring and funding periodic physical site assessments; allocating funds for each public school to hire an maintain at least one school resource officer; and requiring districts and charter school operators to have at least one SRO at each school.

Why and How Did The Legislative Auditor's Office Compile Its Review?

The auditor's office conducted its review after the creation of the school safety act passed in the 2023 legislative session and because school violence across the U.S. has increased. In 2022, there were 109 threats of school violence, mostly related to shootings and bomb threats, according to a state agency that analyzes information about criminal activity in the state.

In conducting its review, the auditor's office used information from stakeholders involved in school safety, researched best practices from emergency management organizations, analyzed schools' use of available school safety resources and reviewed safety monitoring efforts for preventing school violence.

It also analyzed results from a survey sent by the Louisiana Department of Education in November 2022 that received responses from 79 districts, including local education agencies, special school districts and charter schools, that covered about 73 percent of Louisiana's public schools.

It conducted its own survey to get more information about the status of EOPs from schools that either didn't respond to the LDOE's survey or responded and indicated substantial deficiencies. It received 345 responses.

The auditor's office's report does not specify data by school district or school site.

What Did The Auditor's Report Find?

The LDOE's survey tested several EOP criteria. The largest area of noncompliance — 99.8 percent of surveyed schools — was when schools and districts said staff was not notified when revisions were made to the EOP.

About 45 percent of schools and districts said they did not share the EOP with the president of the school board or governing authority, the local fire chief, or the local emergency preparedness office respectively.

Of the 345 schools that responded to the auditor's office survey, six did not have a formal EOP and districts could not confirm whether 27 schools had EOPs.

When the auditor's office reviewed 49 EOPs, 18 of them did not meet the criteria of a formally developed plan.

"These plans were as short as three pages long or were styled as a template of an EOP with placeholders for where information was intended to be placed," according to the report. "One district provided a single district level plan that was not tailored to the location, school layout, personnel, or ages of students at each given school."

The auditor's office review of those EOPs also found that 53.1 percent of those plans did not include provisions for active shooter scenarios, about 29 percent didn't address the management of emergency situations such as natural disasters and about 96 percent did not provide that classroom doors should be locked during instructional time, all of which are required by state law. It also found that about 86 percent of those plans did not address the needs of special education students and those with access and functional needs.

When the auditor's office analyzed what resources the state has received to address school safety and EOPs, it found not all schools have taken advantage of those resources.

The state received about $3.7 million in federal grant funding to build capacity at the district and local levels for emergency operations planning, review and feedback. But in 2018, only 70 of the 120 school districts participated with representatives from 45 of those districts attending three or fewer of the eight free courses.

The grant was allowed to expire with $1.6 million in available funds rather than requesting an extension because of the low participating levels and extensive administrative requirements tied to the grant, according to the report.

What Did The Legislative Auditor's Office Suggest the Legislature Consider?

The auditor's report raised several points that the legislature may want to consider to encourage and aid districts in meeting EOP requirements and enhancing school safety.

It suggested that the legislature may want to require districts to designate a school safety coordinator who would be responsible for ensuring an EOP is developed for each school. State law currently requires each public school principal to develop an EOP with local emergency responders. But stakeholders told the auditor's office that could be overwhelming for principals.

The responsibility to develop an EOP is placed on a local entity, such as a board of education, or school safety entity in 33 states while only eight states, including Louisiana, place responsibility at the school level, according to the report.

The auditor's report suggested that a lack of consequences may contributed to continued noncompliance and that the legislature may want to consider authorizing a state entity, such as the LDOE, to establish accountability measures.

It also suggested the legislature may want to consider funding and requiring periodic physical site assessment of public schools. At least 17 states, including Florida and Texas, require those assessments, but Louisiana does not.

Louisiana State Police told the auditor's office it could perform routine site assessments for each school, ideally on a three-year basis to give schools time to address deficiencies between visits. LSP estimated it would need about $1.1 million in funding for that.

Right now, there is only one dedicated staff member to perform site assessments, but it does recruit retired troopers to help. The department also told the auditor's office that it is common to find noncompliance with state law and best practices when it conducts assessments.

In addition to site visits, the auditor's office said the legislature may want to consider funding and possible requiring that every school district and charter school place at least one SRO in each school. About 33 percent of Louisiana public schools do not have an SRO as of November 2022, according to an LDOE survey.

School safety officials in the state recommended the change to the auditor's office. But hurdles exist such as funding SRO positions, LSP told the auditor's office. And some national organizations have raised concerns that the presence of SROs may increase a students' risk of developing criminal records while attending school and that students are more likely to be arrested for nonviolent crimes, like disruptive behavior.

The regular Louisiana Legislative sessions convenes on March 11.

(c)2024 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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