More than half of the states and the District of Columbia do not require schools or day care centers to meet minimum standards to protect children during major emergencies, according to a new report.
Save the Children, a non-governmental disaster relief organization focused on children, found that 17 states don't require evacuation plans in day care centers. The report also found that numerous other states don't require specific plans for reuniting children with their parents after an emergency.
Other states don't require plans for helping children with special needs, which includes infants and toddlers.
Four states - Iowa, Idaho, Kansas and Michigan - also do not require K-12 schools to have emergency plans for multiple hazards, such as school shootings or natural disasters, the report found.
"Children are among the most vulnerable in an emergency," says Jeanne-Aimee De Marrais, Save the Children's senior director for U.S. emergencies. "Parents assume their children go to school or child care and they are protected, but the events of the past year showed the emergency plans in place are not enough."
Last year was rife with disasters that affected children, from the Newtown, Conn., school shooting to Superstorm Sandy on the East Coast and the tornado in Moore, Okla.
"This goes beyond a fire drill," De Marrais says.
Robbie Parker knows all too well the impact when a school's emergency plan doesn't cover all contingencies.
Before Dec. 14, 2012, Parker, 31, hadn't thought much about emergency plans in schools. That changed the day a teenaged gunman entered Sandy Hook Elementary School and killed six adults and 20 children - his 6-year-old daughter, Emilie, among them.
Today, Parker and his wife, Alissa, are encouraging parents to learn about the emergency plans in their schools and day care centers and question their effectiveness.
He says Sandy Hook Elementary had a plan that included a buzzer at the front door. But he says the school had no detailed contingency plan if that defense was breached.
"If you got buzzed in, there was nothing to prevent you from going anywhere in the school," he says.
The gunman Adam Lanza entered the school by shooting the locked glass door in the front of the school.
"You want to make it as difficult as possible for someone to get in, so you need more than one line of defense," Parker says.
He says some of the easiest solutions are also the least expensive. For example, he says, schools can install locks on classroom doors that lock from the inside. At Sandy Hook, a teacher could only lock a classroom door with a key on the outside of the door knob.
"It's hard to go there in your mind because it's hard to admit your child may be vulnerable to harm," he says. "But you see us. We want to make sure that this isn't you."
Every weekday, 68 million children are separated from their parents, the report says.
There has been improvement in the six years that Save the Children began conducting its report, shortly after the crises from Hurricanes Katrina and Irene in which 5,000 children were separated from their families. The first report found only four states met minimum standards, De Marrais says.
To meet the minimum standards, states must require plans to address four issues: evacuation and relocation; family reunification; children with special needs, such as those with disabilities or infants and toddlers; and multiple hazards in schools.
Even though Kansas does not require schools or day care centers to have disaster plans, all schools do have one, says Dale Dennis, deputy commissioner of the State Department of Education. He says recent events across the USA and the state's own history with tornadoes makes preparation imperative for all school districts.
Dennis says a March survey by his department found 40% of school districts had updated their disaster plans in the past year, while 70% said they were in the process of updating one or more portions of their plans.
He says 340 of the state's 1,359 school buildings have FEMA-approved safe rooms in case of tornadoes, and another 128 are building rooms. He says more districts are also considering hiring more police officers to patrol their schools.
The safety plans are approved by the local boards of education, which he says are in the best position to know what is the right emergency plan for their schools.
Says Dennis: "We are not a mandate state, but our people take this very seriously."
By Marisol Bello