Safe in School

By: Dr Manu Singh
Increased practical and theoretical awareness of disasters, as well as structural changes and hazard mitigation are critical steps in making a school safe. Campaigns towards this will save young lives and sow the seeds of change for more resilient communities.
Disaster Education

Children are at risk in a place we expect them to be safest – their schools. Thousands of children have lost their lives simply because of improper structures, hazard filled rooms or ignorance about how to protect themselves when a disaster strikes.

It is fairly well understood that among all public amenities, schools and their students are the most vulnerable during any disaster. Typhoon Linda, 1997, in the Pacific destroyed over 2,200 schools; Columbia earthquake, 1999, damaged 74 per cent schools and the Gujarat earthquake, 2001, saw the collapse of 1800 schools. Kashmir earthquake of 2005 resulted in damage to or destruction of 8,000 schools and killed 17,000 children while the China earthquake of 2008 damaged 7,000 schools and killed 10,000 students. And these are just a handful of examples.

World over there are institutions whose work extends beyond their routine requirements. Schools are perfect examples of this. Both legally and socially, education is viewed as a fundamental right of citizens. This basic premise ensures that schools occupy a special status within every community, positioning them as ‘safe havens’. In fact the school forms an ideal environment to cultivate the ‘culture of preparedness’ that is the foundation to reduce risk. Children carry information home to their families and communities, acting as risk reduction ambassadors. Also, in the aftermath of a disaster, education services in schools are one of the most important ways to restore a sense of routine to the community. It plays a key role in facilitating the psychological healing of children and adolescents through peer interaction and a sense of normalcy.


Integrating disaster preparedness into school life

School level disaster management does not usually feature in a teacher’s job description. So, despite an enthusiastic response, the burden of additional responsibility often dilutes the impact beyond its initial appeal. Even attempts to introduce the subject as part of the formal curriculum may not be adequate. Ideally the training approach to school safety should be a complementary one, where teachers are able to view the subject as an extension of their existing curricula. For example, lessons on life saving skills can add value to existing classes on physical education. Similarly, science classes can provide a useful framework to understand cause and effect relationships, helping students to reflect on the inherent links between humans and the natural environment. Perhaps most importantly, teachers need to provide a balance between the theoretical and the practical understanding.

Three point agenda

SEEDS an NGO working in the sector, uses an effective three-point agenda, learn, reflect, empower, based on Daisaku Ikeda’s proposal ‘The Challenge of Global Empowerment: Education for a Sustainable Future’ ( to engage students.

To learn: Students deepen their awareness about hazards and risks when they understand realities and learn facts. Recent natural disasters serve as case studies. The learning process is strengthened by changes in curriculum (where possible). Movies, workshops and online training modules, such as the Global Open Learning Forum on Risk Education, can be useful resources in this regard.

To reflect: Students analyse factors that lead to human casualties and injuries in disasters, to recognise the link between development practices and human actions. Students are connected to their own local communities and families and share their learning with them.

To empower: Students take small but definitive actions towards reducing risks in their environment. School students, teachers and management together develop disaster management plans. In the process, they discover existing structural and non structural weaknesses. Efforts should be made to ensure that the school community takes ownership of the plan and makes the necessary updates.

In practical terms, this translates into raising awareness of disaster issues through lectures, discussions, posters, drama (street play) and demonstrations; using hazard hunt maps and checklists to identify and address vulnerabilities outside and inside the school; identifying the roles and responsibilities of various stakeholders; preparing a school evacuation plan; building emergency response skills such as rescue and first aid; keeping contact information of all facilities and resources for emergency management at hand; conducting mock drills to test evacuation, rescue and first aid skills acquired by students and promoting School Safety Clubs to sustain risk education.


Strengthening school infrastructure

Yet, training alone will not suffice to make schools safer. Take for example the magnitude 8.0 earthquake in China in May 2008. Over 10,000 children were crushed to death in their classrooms. Yet, all 2,323 pupils at Sangzao Middle School escaped as Ye Zhiping, the principal, had pushed for funds from the County Education Department to widen and strengthen concrete pillars and balcony railings on all four stories, as well as secure the concrete floors.

It is common to see heavy books lying unsupported on wobbly library shelves, flammable chemicals not safely stored in the labs, shatter prone glass panes, narrow stairways and corridors or blocked alternate exits in schools. Just addressing these issues can have a profound impact. An abundance of school buildings around the world suffer from serious structural flaws and falling hazards that make them increasingly vulnerable to natural disasters. Specialist agencies such as SEEDS can help carry out detailed structural analysis and retrofitting. While such technical support is available, it is the active steps by teachers and parents that play a key role in raising the funds and support necessary to build safer learning environments.

Building a culture of preparedness

The first concerted steps towards creating awareness on disaster risk reduction among all school students, irrespective of the location, have begun. This ‘culture of preparedness’ will then spread, garnering popular support and goodwill. Partnerships are also emerging and evolving. Initiatives such as the Indian interactive portal help not only schools, but hospitals and local communities to collaborate in this effort. This model of collaborative partnerships can help snowball school safety initiatives and save every child from the next big disaster. The clearly perceivable effects of climate change mean that the frequency and fury of disasters will increase and so will the vulnerability of children. Investing in our future is the key – to make schools safer and sow the seeds for a more resilient and prepared community.

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