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10 Tips for Protecting Children in Violence-Based Emergencies

After the unspeakable horrors that happened in Oklahoma City and in Sandy Hook, CT – 70% of parents are concerned about the possibility of violent acts in schools. Lockdowns and drills can empower staff and save lives, but they can’t prevent harm. Save the Children’s Emergency Experts – together with our partner Safe and Sound Schools – offers these tips for keeping children safe in a violent situation.

  1. Talk to children about violence-based emergencies.
    This is particularly important if your child has learned about a recent emergency situation. First, listen carefully to your children, allowing them to express their concerns and ask questions. Reassure them and be honest – don’t lie to them. Address any inaccurate concerns that they may have (e.g., school shootings happen frequently; children are not safe at school). Don’t go into graphic details, but put the emphasis on safety, and help them identify the plans that are in place to protect them in all types of emergencies.
  2. Teach children response options.
    There are a few ways to respond to an intruder based on where the intruder or danger is located. Make sure that the response options below (Get Out, Stay Out, Hide Out) are presented as choices.
    • Get Out: If it is possible to get away from danger, go to a safe place. Teachers, leaders and first responders will come to find you in your meeting place or another place.
    • Keep Out: If it is not possible to get out of the building or out of harm’s way, keep danger out of the room by locking and blocking doors and staying away from windows.
    • Hide Out: Stay out of sight from danger by hiding. Hide in closets, under desks, or behind large pieces of furniture. Try to stay quiet so we can know if we need to get out or when the danger has passed.
  3. It’s normal to be scared.
    Everyone feels afraid when they’re in danger. Fear is how our bodies alert us and prepare us for action in times of danger. Help children understand that their natural reactions – freezing or fleeing – are normal.
  4. Follow the leader.
    Teach children that adults – teachers, leaders and first responders – will be working to keep them safe. It’s important to stay quiet and listen to teachers and for directions.
  5. It’s OK to break the rules.
    Sometimes children may be separated from their leader or teacher and may have to make safety choices on their own. Let them know that in an emergency, their safety is the top priority. No one will get angry if they break rules – like entering staff-only areas or running in the hall – in order to be safe.
  6. Practice drills.
    Children are more likely to have confidence to make a safe decision in an actual emergency situation when they’ve practiced. Lockdown and shooter drills should be developed and implemented by a multidisciplinary safety team and informed by mental health professional. Make sure the complexity of the drills and how they are taught are age appropriate.
  7. Increase drill complexity as children develop.
    As children mature, they can handle more information and more complex drills. Participation in drills should be appropriate to individual development levels and take into consideration prior traumatic experiences special needs and personalities.
  8. Parents should have a choice.
    Parents should know about the types of safety education, programming and drills that are planned for a school or program site before they are implemented. Parents should be allowed to opt their children out of such programming and provide feedback.
  9. Be reassuring.
    Children look to adults as role models. Effective drills should be run by staff who inspire calm and confidence in children. Remind children that there are caring adults who will be working to keep them safe in all types of emergency situations.
  10. Look for signs of trauma.
    It’s normal for children to be a little anxious during emergency drills. If children they appear extremely fearful, angry or withdrawn during or following an exercise, seek professional help. Involve mental health professionals in the development and implementation of drills and exercises.

Sources:
Stay Safe Choices, 2013. Safe and Sound: A Sandy Hook Initiative.
Best Practice Considerations for Schools in Active Shooter and Other Armed Assailant Drills. 2014. National Association of School Psychologists and National Association of School Resource Officers.

Emergency Education and Training Activities

Basic: All ages
Introduction to Safety Concepts: Help children learn to identify adults who can help them in emergency situations, including what they might look like in uniforms (or wearing masks) and what kinds of tools they carry as helpers (shields or weapons). An example would be inviting a first responder to visit your classroom or program.

Familiarity with Surroundings: Tour the building or facilities and have a scavenger hunt helping children recognize possible exits, phone location, first aid materials, light switches, supplies kits, and other materials. Help kids become familiar with areas that are typically off limits during a school or program hours, such as the staff lounge, front office space and other halls or doors that could be used for evacuation or sheltering in place during an emergency.

Beginner: Elementary and above
Educational Media: Present age-appropriate, non-threatening stories of emergency protocol to help bring safe behaviors to life. Ensure a multi-disciplinary team is involved in the development and/or review of the materials. Materials should be presented to parents in advance so they can choose whether or not they want the child to participate.

Scenario Discussions: Create no-and low-stress opportunities to talk through safety scenarios, including potential actions and available tools for children and teachers. Have children brainstorm, discuss, problem-solve multiple situations. For young children, use a game format to spark discussions, such as “What Are Sammy’s Safe Choices?” Teenagers can engage in more intensive strategic discussions. Children’s participation in scenario discussions help with mental preparation, improved awareness and overall readiness for emergencies.

Walk-Through Drills: These low-stress drills help children act out safety actions that might occur during an emergency. They are not timed or rushed. Leaders can use this time to demonstrate necessary steps or available options. A walk-through drill could be considered a “slow motion drill” that allows for questions and discussion along the way.

Intermediate:
Pre-announced Drills: This is an announced rehearsal of emergency responses and protocols. All participants know that this is not a real emergency. Children should be instructed to act and follow instructions as if it were a real emergency.

Unannounced Drills: These drills are not recommended for active shooter drills. An unannounced drill simulates real-world conditions in that it is unexpected. Participants are encouraged to treat the drill as a possible emergency and follow all necessary protocols. Advanced: Full Scale Drills, Simulations and Advanced Simulations require an increasing level of involvement and participation of first responders and other local government agencies. While these are critical in improving and coordinating emergency plans and protocols for schools and other child-serving organizations, children’s participation should be limited.

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