Washington Schools Risk Management Pool’s Deborah Callahan Lays Down What It Takes to Keep Kids Safe

A long-time veteran of risk management for the public sector, Deborah Callahan shares insights on stopping sexual abuse in schools.
By: | April 7, 2021

R&I: What was your first job?  

In 1977, while attending college, I served as a part-time ‘secretary’ (yes, that was the title of the job!) to a Farmers Insurance Agent. That was the start of my insurance career: working for four private sector and two public sector employers over a span of 43 years.

R&I: How did you come to your current position?  

Between 1988 and 1992, I was the Commercial Lines Claims Manager for Great American Insurance (GAI) in Seattle. GAI wrote approximately 180 school districts in Oregon.

Those school districts were my favorite part of the job. In 1992, GAI downsized and I chose to remain in Seattle as a stay-at-home mom as I had just given birth to my son Ryan.

In 1995, a former employee found me at home and asked me to come to work for the Puget Sound Schools Risk Management Pool (PSSRMP was the former name of WSRMP).

It was an opportunity to work with school districts again and I jumped at the chance. I haven’t regretted a single day and am now in my 25th year with WSRMP serving my beloved Washington schools.

R&I: What’s been the biggest change in risk management and the insurance industry since you’ve been in it?  

The integration of women and people of color into the industry. When I started in the industry, there were very few women and even fewer people of color in the “professional” job titles.

It has been my privilege to hire, develop and promote many women and people of color into professional claims, risk management, underwriting and marketing positions during my career.

R&I: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve faced in your career?  

Over the past 5 years, there has been a huge shift in public mistrust of government and an increase in lawsuits and legislation designed to correct social injustices.

WSRMP experienced an onslaught of Sexual Abuse and Molestation (SAM) claims that not only caused a drop in our financial position but created a moral imperative to prevent sexual abuse in our schools.

We instituted a multi-pronged, risk management approach (developed a Sexual Abuse Prevention Advisory Committee (SAPAC), special claims handling, targeted member training, specific coverage, pricing and underwriting modifications, to name but a few) and have significantly reduced the number of SAM claims coming in the door.

More importantly, we have openly shared our journey, our data and our successes with our peer risk pools. For our work, WSRMP received the prestigious Excellence Award from the Association of Governmental Risk Pools (AGRiP) in Spring, 2020.

R&I: Who has been your mentor(s) and why?  

Dave Hayasaka, the former Executive Director of WSRMP, now retired. Dave promoted me to Deputy Executive Director and taught me everything he knew. Most importantly, he taught me the value of ‘forecasting’ to identify opportunities and threats, and ‘backcasting’ to create systems to maximize or avoid those outcomes.

As a result, WSRMP is a forward-thinking, forward-moving risk pool. We take great pride in being not only current and relevant but being ahead of the curve on emerging trends through constant communication with our school districts, timely data-driven analysis, and intentional innovation.

R&I: What is the risk management community doing right?   

The risk management community is doing better at educating the public on the basics of risk management and what their individual role is. I find that more people understand the concept of risk management and how it applies to them in their day-to-day existence. This includes more people in the conversation.

R&I: What could the risk management community be doing a better job of?   

Enterprise Risk Management in the public sector is still a work in progress. The private sector has done a great job at moving ERM forward in their organizations, but I feel that public sector is just getting started.

R&I: How would you say technology has impacted the risk management profession?  

Technology has had a huge impact on the risk management profession. It is a key factor to WSRMP’s success.

Data analytics not only allow us to study a broad problem (such as the impact of SAM claims across the pool) but good data also allows us to issue highly customized, individualized action plans to our school district members to address their specific loss trends and make improvements that affect not only their bottom line, but also our bottom line.

A risk management mindset is a win-win scenario for both schools and pools.

R&I: Why has collaboration between risk managers been key during the COVID-19 pandemic?  

COVID-19 has had a catastrophic impact on our world. There is no minimalizing the sheer brunt of the infections, deaths and inequities attributable to the pandemic. But there have been some positives from a risk management perspective: collaboration between risk management partners has never been higher.

As an example, Janice Abraham, CEO of United Educators (UE) and her incredible staff took a risk and provided WSRMP with Communicable Disease Coverage through our reinsurance policy this year. WSRMP could not be more grateful for the mentorship and support we have received through UE and, in turn, WSRMP has passed that support down to our school districts.

Our director of risk management, Amber Garriott and her team, has issued over 63 Risk Alerts to our schools with guidance on topics such as operating daycares for first responders, delivering student meals via bus routes, cleaning and disinfection, social distancing, remote learning, virtual graduations, vaccinations, sports with masks, etc.

Our school districts have heroically jumped into each challenge and created new systems to accomplish the unimaginable.  WSRMP, with help from UE, has provided schools with the resources, coverage and confidence they need to get our kiddos safely back in school.

R&I: What is your favorite drink?  


R&I: What have you accomplished that you are proudest of?  

My proudest accomplishment is putting together the amazing team at WSRMP. I have never worked with, and for, a better group of people who demonstrate daily their commitment to working for the public good and the betterment of our public schools.

R&I: What is the riskiest activity you’ve ever engaged in? 

Hiking up to the crater of Mt. St. Helens, an active volcano. &

Courtney DuChene is a freelance journalist based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at [email protected].

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