School Library Monthly/Volume XXVII, Number 4/January 2011
Proactive Advocacy: "Emergency Preparedness" for the School Library
by Christie Kaaland
Christie Kaaland, Ed.D., is the Director of the School Library Endorsement Program at Antioch University Seattle. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
"Five minutes before the party is not the time to learn to dance."
I teach a health and safety methods course to pre-service teachers. In this course, we hold a lengthy conversation about emergency preparedness in the schools that begins something like this:
Every disastrous event is unique; there is no way to be fully prepared for the unique needs of every disaster that may occur. But teachers can apply two important strategies to help be as prepared as possible. One is to be vigilant; the second is to become educated to sound practices in prevention and preparedness.
What emerges from the discussion are content strategies and implementation for being prepared to meet disasters head-on.
Reactive vs Proactive
Unfortunately, disasters in schools are typically addressed reactively rather than proactively (e.g., Columbine and Virginia Tech, and larger national disasters such as 9/11 and Katrina). Although day-to-day emergency preparedness curriculum may take a backseat to math and reading, if a disaster strikes, the teachers' attention would change instantly. Hopefully, based on emergency preparedness, teachers would have the basic understandings of how to respond.
Following Katrina, Senator Bill Frist, Tennessee, stated that America will be secure only by dealing with threats before they happen, not after. This same philosophy can be applied to school libraries as well. School libraries will only be secure by dealing with threats before they happen, not just after they happen.
School librarians have always understood the importance of providing disaster relief. The American Library Association was the first large organization to retain their conference site in New Orleans following Katrina. When large-scale disasters occur, librarians are the first professionals that educators turn to for critical information. As librarians, we do a great job of protecting and supporting others, sometimes at the expense of spending time in "emergency preparedness" for our own profession.
Each Disaster Is Unique
Like the famous Tolstoy quote from Anna Karenina, "All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way" (2004), so it goes for strong school libraries—districts that strongly support libraries resemble one another in the philosophy toward school library programs. They embrace the broadest definition of literacy and recognize the school library’s role as an important component of literacy, K-12. And, they believe preparing today's students for the future means providing curriculum that includes 21st-century technology and information skills. These goals remain despite sometimes shortsighted foci limited to responses to standardized test scores.
But like Tolstoy's unhappy family, each "school library disaster"—that is, a library program decimated by personnel cuts—is unique. When it happens, when school district financial decision-makers influence shortsighted administrative budget cutting decisions, the cuts are rarely the same from one district to another, making it difficult to have a defined action plan.
How then can school library supporters be prepared for disastrous cuts prior to their occurrence? What are the most critical strategies that can be employed proactively in school districts and libraries to avoid cuts in library positions and resources before they happen?
Emergency preparedness for school libraries can be drawn from the expertise of William Lokey, prior FEMA coordinator and currently of Witt and Associates. Several key concepts from Lokey’s White Paper on Emergency Preparedness can be applied to school libraries.
1. Disasters don’t happen often enough for most of us to get good at it (Lokey 2000).
Knowing that the opportunity to prevent personnel cuts to the school library program may happen only once or twice in a professional librarian’s career, making it difficult to be prepared. Prior-established communication systems are critical. Having a strong communication network not only within the district but statewide, perhaps even nationwide, can provide critical shortcuts when calling in support becomes necessary (see Act4SL).
Act4SL: Act for School Libraries, Act for Student Learning
Act4SL is a grassroots organization begun by five school library professionals to provide processes for anyone, anywhere to act on behalf of school libraries. The current primary goal is to convince legislators to vote for the reauthorization of ESEA to include a quality school library program with the instructional leadership of a certified librarian in every school. An additional goal, however, is developing a network of activists ready to respond as needed and a clearinghouse of resources from which to draw.
To learn more go to Act4SL
When the school library organization in the state of Washington, Washington Library Media Association (WLMA), is notified of large-scale potential cuts to certificated library positions, librarians need support in multiple ways and need to be informed fast. WLMA Advocacy guides district librarians both on strategies to employ and how to garner support.
The learning curve for emergency response is great for everyone involved. Further, large cuts of certificated library positions can rarely be made without the board's vote. School librarians must use these two facts to their advantage; for many district administrators and board members it may be the first time that they have come up against a group of library supporters in making personnel cuts. Employing swarming techniques may stun administrator and school board into revisiting those planned budget cuts.
One involvement technique employed in Washington is fondly referred to as "swarming." It includes recruiting mass involvement at critical decision-making school board meetings. Strategies include:
- Ensure informed and confident supporters are available to testify or speak at school board meetings. Though librarians need to make statements, it is more critical to include supporters who are not librarians.
- Fill the school board room (swarm) with librarian supporters.
- Bring signage so school board and administrators will know who supporters are there for.
- Inform any high-profile individuals who can bring attention to the meeting beforehand.
- Don't just invite and inform the parent-teacher organizations—get volunteers to speak on behalf of their local school library program.
- Call the media; try for local news coverage.
- Involve/invite local political figures to those school board meetings.
- Ensure all know exact board meeting dates and times.
Swarming district meetings often produces results.
Know the Law. Know the Contract.
Additionally, there may be legal protection from which school librarians can draw. Are there laws in your state that address the language of equitable access to technology, information, and other resources? Knowing laws that can be applied to school libraries are very powerful weapons against critical cuts (see Act4SL for resources). District decision-makers cannot implement any decision that violates state mandates or state laws. Furthermore, school boards and district administrators are not likely to put school library programs on the chopping block when they understand and clearly recognize that a politically active community of school library supporters exists within the district. Be mindful also of the fact that school board members are elected officials. The more informed the school library community is, the less likely it is that cuts will be made to the school library program.
Administrators and school board officials are hard pressed to find ways around school district contracts that protect school library programs as well. One proactive way to prevent library disasters is to work with school district unions during contract negotiation to include language protecting the district’s school library program.
2. Learn from the past (Lokey 2000).
Today most state school library organizations have an arsenal of defense against school library program cuts. WLMA Advocacy, for example, began several years ago as a one-person committee. It has become a committee with three co-chairs and several regional contact members who work together to promote libraries and respond when mass personnel cuts are threatened. The more experience WLMA Advocacy has in handling these cuts, the more arsenal and ideas are generated and the more strategic and prepared WLMA Advocacy becomes.
Advocacy Committees must collect evidence not only showing how strong programs with certificated librarians impact student achievement and what happens when cuts are made, but also the State of the Libraries in a particular state. This data should be made available on state library Web sites for members to access.
3. The question is not "Who is in charge here?," but rather, "How do we work together to solve this problem?" (Lokey 2000).
Often when tight budgets threaten personnel cuts, emotions run high. Further, district decision-makers, whether intentional or not, sometimes pit one interest group against another. When this happens, it is critical that all those affected work together, share ideas, and keep emotions in tact. Having one calm and levelheaded individual willing to take charge may prevent emotionally-charged mistakes that later affect critical relationships.
Further, advocacy training points to the importance of having outside support, advocates who are not employed as librarians. This may include special interest groups who are also facing cuts. Consider negotiating with these other groups to testify in each other's behalf. How powerful it would be for school district librarians to testify on behalf of counselors and vice versa.
4. Decide on your chain of command (Lokey 2000).
A chain of command and the communications plan should be established yesterday. All school library programs should already have a phone tree, a district librarian contact list, and a librarian listserv, updated each year with a plan for rapid communication. Further, school librarians should self-select among their peers one individual willing to take charge should advocacy leadership with regard to district library personnel cuts be necessary.
5. Disaster response requires improvisational problem solving (Lokey 2000).
This is probably the most valuable concept to prevent cuts in school library programs. While there are good strategies to employ, there is not a standard, hard-and-fast list of techniques that always applies. Just as every district's budget, administration, school board, and community are unique, so each district has its own strengths and, hopefully, its own secret arsenal of support.
Faced with potential cuts all district librarians and library supporters should meet immediately to brainstorm strategies for their district and community's unique situation.
Having an Emergency Preparedness Plan for potential personnel cuts just may save a district’s school library program. By having a plan in place, a school librarian can apply those best practices that great educators use every day:
- Stay informed, stay current.
- Be a good communicator.
- Work together.
- Problem solve to solution.
Lokey, W. Thoughts on Disaster Planning. Unpublished, 2000.
Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Penguin Classics, 2004.
Consider how other Emergency Preparedness Strategies can be applied to school library personnel cuts:
- Decide from where to manage your department’s activities.
- Decide what resources you need to manage departmental activities.
- Decide what information you need and how to get it.
- Decide who should go to the [school board meetings] if requested.
- Know your department’s resources.
- Ensure departmental staff is aware of the above. (Lokey 2000)