Can Colorado teachers feel more prepared for school emergencies?

Empty Denver South High School
Hart Van Denburg/CPR News
An empty classroom at Denver’s South High School, Tuesday, May 5, 2020.

Between reading, writing, and arithmetic, there are also disease outbreaks, natural disasters, and acts of violence at schools. While school districts have security and drills for these events, educators often have unanswered questions and are left feeling anxious and overwhelmed.

Two Anschutz researchers wanted to change that, starting with gathering school staff’s ideas and addressing their questions about safety.

“They want to be part of decision-making,” said Natalie Schwatka, an assistant professor at the Colorado School of Public Health on the CU Anschutz Medical Campus. “They want to contribute.”

Schwatka and Courtney Welton Mitchell, an assistant professor on the campus, conducted a two-year research project on psychological preparedness training for the public school workforce. Their goal was to create specialized training for school staff.

Districts often have security teams and they also have mental health counselors. But the two don’t really collaborate, researchers explained.

“In our project, we really kind of wanted to marry…. how can we think about physically protecting them (educators) in emergencies, but also preparing them psychologically,” said Schwatka.

They developed a specific curriculum, training nearly 500 school-based staff in the Cherry Creek School District.

First, the research team surveyed school staff in six Colorado school districts

Teachers are expected to lead drills by locking classrooms, directing and possibly evacuating students, providing safety checks and emotionally supporting students. However, educators surveyed in multiple school districts spoke at length during focus groups about how they didn’t feel psychologically prepared for any type of crisis at school.

Even though the likelihood of experiencing a school shooting is extremely low, because of widespread media coverage, shootings loom large in staff minds.

“That was a No. 1 concern among all the hazards,” said Welton Mitchell.

One reason school staff don’t feel as psychologically as prepared as they could be is they aren’t routinely consulted when it comes to emergency preparedness. While there is a structured command and response in a crisis, teachers and school staff said they wanted a say in emergency preparedness instead of just being recipients of top-down information and protocols.

School staff had mixed feelings about lockdown and lockout drills, which are aimed at preparing people for an active shooter event.

“Many people were upset by and having emotional responses to the drills while at the same time, we often heard that they felt that the drills were a necessary component of preparedness,” said Welton Mitchell.

Here are examples of the feedback gathered from the researchers' survey of educators at six Colorado school districts:

"Most teachers, they don't have the responses and training and they just kind of shut down."

"In these situations, you can see the lack of coping skills or the lack of ability to handle emergency situations."

"We need to normalize reactions under extreme stress so people don't think it's just me, but they realize it's a typical response during stress."

"We need psychological preparedness. We want to create something like that actually, but we haven't had the time. We're always just reacting to the next crisis."

"It's pretty traumatic to have lockdown drills."

"It was terrifying, even though I knew it was a drill. Drills and other forms of preparedness can bring up a lot of stress and fear and trauma for teachers as well. And I don't think that piece is addressed."

Educators expressed concerns about the psychological impact of unannounced drills. They also said the drills weren’t necessarily realistic and wanted to practice drills during class changes or drop off or pick up.

According to researchers, educators shared concerns about the safety of open floor plans, asked for more communication from districts, and more involvement in incident debriefings. Often the feedback was simply wanting further clarity on existing protocols.

Some also had ideas for the expansion of mental health training and ways teachers could help with mental health concerns related to emergency preparedness and response. Researchers noted some educators talked a lot about how they rely on one another for mental support.

Here’s what’s in the half-day training

Taking educator input, the researchers designed training that included creating a space for teachers and staff to have their voices heard. 

It involved four modules: emergency preparedness, psychological preparedness, peer support, and a feedback session. The first module was a Q and A town hall-style, where educators and other school staff got to ask their questions to the Cherry Creek district’s head of safety and security.

Meredith Olugbode, a third-grade teacher at Polton Elementary, one of the pilot schools, said teachers could ask about all the scenarios running through their heads.

“What if we're outside at recess and a lockdown drill happens? What are we supposed to do? What if one of my kids is in the bathroom? What am I actually supposed to do?”

Many of their questions were the questions children ask them, she said.

“They have so many questions, and when we don't have all the answers, it is hard for us to help keep them calm and help just keep their mind at ease,” she said.

School districts can download the curriculum manual here to host their own training sessions.

“Now I have the answers,” she said. “The more information that the kids have, the better that they feel, just like us.”

In the second module, school staff learned to identify their own physiological and psychological responses to immediate threats. They learned quick grounding and coping techniques to calm their minds.

“For example, touching or holding an object or touching cold water or things that will enable you to bring yourself back to the moment,” said Welton Mitchell.  “Other things we can think of as cognitive, like list counting, breathing, and specific types of structured breathing exercises.”

For Olugbode, teachers feeling secure relates a lot to trusting the people with whom they work. She said Polton Elementary’s principal, Angie Lore, has created an environment where teachers feel comfortable bringing up issues or worries with each other.

“We really are a family here, and I know it sounds cliché, but some of my best friends are my coworkers. And so I think when there's that trust piece there, then we feel more comfortable to address these things with our coworkers.”

In the final module, school staff discussed how they can continue to provide feedback and be leaders in safety in their schools regularly.

“The big takeaway was we've got to make sure that as adults, we are feeling good, that we are in a place where we understand what's coming at us, what we need to do, how we support each other in stressful situations so that we can show up our best for kids,” said Lore.

She said the school tries to make teachers' day feel as predictable as possible. Drills are announced in school newsletters, Facebook pages, and in nighttime communications with teachers for a week before the event.

What the researchers found

Researchers compared three schools that got the training to three schools that initially didn’t. Those who participated reported feeling more psychologically prepared, more supported by peers in emergencies, a sense of shared leadership responsibilities in emergencies, and a belief that their school district was prepared for emergencies.

“The most salient outcome was around that psychological preparedness,” said Schwatka.

Cherry Creek School District has incorporated some changes around drills suggested by educators and is considering the next steps for expanding the training to other schools. At a recent drill, Olugbode’s students were in their elective classes, a different scenario than a typical drill.

“I feel like this is the most prepared I think I've ever felt in my career, which is huge,” she said. “I feel like every teacher needs this.”