It has been more than five years since I lost my daughter, Emilie, during the Sandy Hook school shooting. While a lot has changed in my life since then, as I reflect back, many of the lessons we learned from the shooting are still applicable.
Simple Measures can Save Lives
On the day of the attack at Sandy Hook School, I thought back to the last time I was at the school for parent teacher conferences. Entering the school, parents were buzzed into a lobby with big glass windows.
Once inside the building, I noticed classroom doors did not lock from the inside. I remember thinking, “once you’re in, there’s nothing to stop you.” I never imagined something like an attack could happen at my child’s school. Ultimately, I dismissed those worrying safety issues. Tragically, on the day of the attack, our staff and students simply couldn’t secure their classrooms or get to safety quickly enough. There just were not enough protective layers like a secure entry and quick locking classroom doors.
We Are All First Responders
Until trained emergency responders arrive on scene, students, teachers, staff and volunteers may be the only help available to others. It is important to consider how well staff and students are trained and equipped to respond in a crisis.
Practice Makes Progress
During emergencies, the problem-solving part of the brain shuts down and individuals default to what they’ve been trained to do. However, creative solutions — like shoving a bookcase against the door to jam it — can save lives. Staff and students can exercise creative problem solving during education and drills, discuss solutions and ideas with leadership, and add these solutions to formal training if they are deemed safe and viable. Saving students and staff this “think time” can make all the difference in their ability to respond quickly and effectively.
Prepare to step into each other’s roles. Many school’s emergency plans put the principal alone in charge. However, principals are often the first to run toward danger, which makes it incredibly important to empower key staff to step in and take charge whether the principal is available or not. For example, if a teacher suspects there is a security crisis, they should call for a lockdown and not wait for the principal. Schools need to plan and practice for all situations, and everyone needs to know what to do in each situation and be empowered to take appropriate action.
Collaboration is Key
First responders have a critical role in emergencies. When schools assess their emergency plans, they should consult these experts. They can help create clear communication plans, lockdown and evacuation protocols and reunification processes. Once these are in place, continual practice and communication to parents and families is critical. It’s important to tell them what to expect — or better yet, have them participate in education and drills.
Safety is a Process
There really isn’t a checklist we can complete to ensure that we’ve done everything to ensure school safety. Plus, every school and community is different. There won’t be a one size fits all solution.
So, where to start? Frustrated by this, Michele Gay, my co-founding partner at Safe and Sound Schools and a fellow Sandy Hook mother, assembled a team of national experts to create a model schools can use to rethink school safety and teach their staff best practices. It was a place to start.
This model grew into our Straight-A Safety Improvement program and toolkits. The model encourages schools to look at school safety as a continuing process — Assess, Act and Audit. Schools need to assess their current readiness for school safety, then, based on the findings, create a viable and tailored action plan unique to their community. Schools need to continually audit the measures, practices and policies in place, continuing the cycle by reviewing what is working, and what is still left to improve.
The Straight-A Safety model is simple. It provides easy-to-understand frameworks and ideas that any school can apply. It is inclusive and easily adapted to the unique needs of any school community and all participants in the school safety process. The toolkits offer suggestions for practice, to help improve that school safety muscle memory. Straight-A Safety also recognizes the important role all partners and stakeholders play in safety, and encourages collaboration among experts, parents, educators, staff and administrators. Finally, the model itself is a process — a cycle of continuous improvement, fostering a proactive, ongoing awareness and commitment to school safety.
Knowledge is power, knowledge is comforting, and knowledge gives every community member a seat at the school safety table. Knowledge never gets old. Regardless of how much time goes by, I will continue Safe and Sound Schools’ mission to help school communities with prevention, response, and recovery strategies across the full spectrum of school safety to ensure the safest possible learning environment for the youth of our nation.