Critical incidents in schools: plan ahead in 2015

14 January 2015

The end of 2014 and the start of 2015 has been memorable for several tragic and brutal incidents.  The events in Paris last week, the Sydney siege and the Taliban school attack in Pakistan in 2014, were just some of the incidents which have created shock around the world due to their unexpectedness and the loss of innocent lives.

Acts of terror provoke multiple political, social and religious issues and are necessarily debated by the global community.  They also mean that ordinary life processes and services can be impacted upon at any time, without notice.

In September last year we wrote an article about Australia's high terror alert and what it meant for your school. The article encouraged school administrators to take an opportunity to review their Risk Management and Business Continuity Management (BCM) programs, as well as their Critical Incident Response plans.

Today, Australia's terror alert remains at 'High', the second highest on Australia’s four-tier alert system with ‘Extreme’ being the highest rating (a terrorist attack is imminent or has occurred). Because of this rating, and in light of a recent Fairfax media article reporting on the number of critical incidents that occurred at ACT government schools in 2014, now could be another good opportunity for all schools to consider whether they have an effective enterprise risk management plan in place and how prepared they are to respond to critical incidents.

The knife threat at a Sydney school in October last year was an example of how quickly school security can be threatened and it was a reminder of the importance of every school having a:

  • Critical Incident Response plan,
  • Risk Management program; and
  • Business Continuity Management program.

Luckily, in that case no-one was injured.  And, as explained in our article, although that incident was not one of an ‘act of terror’, entry by an intruder on school grounds is still a real risk that can disrupt a school’s regular activities and threaten the safety of staff and students. Your school should be prepared for any type of disruptive event. As the old saying goes 'it's not a matter of if, its a matter of when'. The introduction of a sound risk management program will contemplate a wide range of possible risk events and capture and prepare your school for different types of disruptions.

It's also important to remember that having a Critical Incident Response plan in place is also a requirement for registration for non-government schools in many states and territories.  Western Australia, New South Wales and Victoria are some of the states which impose requirements on non-government schools to have documented critical incident responses processes in some form.

And in some states, such as Victoria, schools are required to plan and prepare for specific threats as part of their emergency response plans.  The Victorian Registration and Qualifications Authority, Victoria’s non-government schools regulator, recently introduced changes requiring schools to have bushfire management plans in place as part of their Risk Management programs.

While it might be tempting to leave the review of critical incident and other emergency management plans until the weeks preceding a school's next registration review date, recent local and international events demonstrate that unforeseen events can arise at any time and can have the potential to seriously disrupt the operation of a school and worse, threaten the safety of staff and students.

The key message we have for schools confronted with an ever-growing array of compliance obligations is: don’t panic.  Schools that have an established governance and risk management framework in place will not find themselves in unfamiliar territory.

As the Fairfax article shows, critical incidents of various types can occur at schools and the fact that the Australian Education Union is seeking to have critical incidents at non-government schools published this year alongside those taking place in the government system, demonstrates the interest the community has in how schools respond to emergencies.

If, in the unfortunate circumstance, a critical incident does arise at your school and you do not have adequate procedures in place to respond to and manage the disruptions that arise, it will be your reputation in addition to your registration, which may be at stake if regulatory changes require you to publish details of the incident.

How prepared is your school to response to critical incidents? When was the last time you tested your business continuity plans?