Schools strive to be safe environments for their students, staff and visitors. However, the numerous acts of school violence this year alone have served as a catalyst for an urgent discussion about school safety.
When a student notices a vulnerable area, sees something suspicious, or hears a rumor about a violent act that could take place, students need to know they will be taken seriously if they report it.
I recently participated in a webinar series presented by PublicSchoolWORKS called “School Safety Talks” that focused on crisis prevention, preparedness and response. The following are key points I discussed during the webinar.
Today, instead of being safe havens, schools are at risk for acts of violence and leaders are under pressure to develop and implement effective school safety measures with little to no guidance. To help districts navigate this, I’ve compiled tactics schools and districts can use, as well as outlined how they can use resources already available to them to provide safer learning environments.
Collaborating with All Stakeholders
Nobody has shoulders broad enough to carry a security program by themselves. Instead, schools and districts should create safety planning teams consisting of both internal and external stakeholders. This includes, but is not limited to, district and building-level administrators, staff, students, first responders, local businesses, other schools or local institutions such as hospitals, and parents.
To manage emergencies, schools should comply with the Incident Command System (ICS). This helps the school know who will fill which roles in the event of an emergency. There should be two individuals as backups for every role.
Security planning teams should have the entire school’s staff fill out a skills survey. This helps create an inventory of staff skills such as AED certification, bilingualism, former military experience, and possession of emergency supplies – all of which can be crucial in the event of an emergency.
Committing from the Top-Down
While schools and districts should collaborate with all stakeholders, their commitment to safety should be led from the top. Whether it is the superintendent, principal or head master, the school or district leader must lead by example and model the behaviors they want their stakeholders to adopt.
For example, if a faculty member is supervising an off-site school-sanctioned practice or event for students, he or she has specific responsibilities to ensure safety, including contacting an “accountability partner” back at the school once they arrive at their destination. This creates documentation of the group’s location, when they arrived, and that they arrived safely. If you do not establish this communication lifeline, problems can arise. Further, if your principal or administrator does not mandate this accountability partner process, the supervising staff or faculty member may not think to do it.
Creating a Culture of Awareness
In addition to staff training and lockdown drills, there are many small things a school can do to shift from a “Mayberry” mentality to a “See Something, Say Something” mentality. For example, take two or three minutes at the beginning of staff meetings to talk about safety awareness issues.
Project a picture of a parking lot for 10 seconds and ask staff to memorize as many details as possible. Then ask them if they saw any safety concerns. How many cars were in the parking lot? Was it surrounded by a fence? How tall was the fence? Was there adequate lighting? Were there low hanging limbs or tall shrubbery that could create easy hiding spots for perpetrators?
Helping everyone hone awareness skills will empower them to notice and report concerns.
Students have the best pulse of issues both on and off campus. They are the eyes and ears on the ground, thus making them a valuable resource for safety planning teams. Planning teams can survey students about the security risks they see every day, such as where students buy or use drugs, and they can ask for students’ input during building security assessments. When I come across a vulnerable area during a school building assessment, more times than not, it is the student who has an answer about why the issue is present.
When a student notices a vulnerable area, sees something suspicious, or hears a rumor about a violent act that could take place, students need to know they will be taken seriously if they report it. Fostering relationships with students creates an open dialogue and gives them confidence that their voice will be heard.
These relationships can also be used as a preventative measure. So often we hear a student’s behavior changed leading up to committing an act of violence, but how can teachers and administrators notice changes in behavior if they do not have solid relationships with students?
Students’ knowledge of social media is also a valuable tool for planning teams. Threats are often shared on social media so it is crucial staff understand how it works. Since students are the experts, consider bringing a student into staff meetings to provide a quick tutorial of how specific social media apps work. Students are crucial to unlocking information that can greatly improve safety programs.
Harnessing Social Media
Social media can be a powerful tool for school safety. For example, Twitter is a great method of mass notification. The National Weather Service or Homeland Security’s Twitter accounts give followers almost instant updates on security and emergency information. However, it can also create security risks.
Every day there’s a new app people are using. I tell both students and staff they should look at three different considerations before using an app. They should be wary of apps not based in the U.S., apps that are location based, and apps that require you to enter personal information in order to create an account. As an example, apps like ask.fm should be avoided.
Prioritizing the Protection of People
There are two keys to protecting people in schools: access control and communication. Access control protects us all the time and communication ensures everyone knows to respond should something occur. For example, recess can be a vulnerable situation for schools. If the playground or blacktop does not have a fence around it, how are students protected from individuals wandering onto the playground or from a car driving onto it? Staff members should be stationed around the perimeter of the playground to supervise students as they play, and they should be equipped with two-way radios, whistles and fanny packs stocked with first aid supplies.
Prepare for the Ever-Changing
Schools need to prepare for crises such as active shooters and natural disasters, which includes conducting training and lockdown drills, storing emergency kits in classrooms or strategic locations around the building, uploading emergency procedures into apps so they are easily accessible and more.
However, emergency preparedness is not static. New risks arise on an ongoing basis, which makes conducting regular security assessments crucial. Walk through the halls, observe staff and students, and conduct surveys. Gather as much information as possible and assess it collaboratively. By working together with all stakeholders, schools can keep up with and address new risks. Now is the time to make schools safer.