Superintendents and other school leaders can prepare an actionable plan that will help to make the safety of our students a priority. Being proactive instead of reactive is paramount to keeping our children, faculty and staff safe. Nobody can predict the unpredictable, but every district leadership team should have a plan in place to keep his or her students and staff safe. What follows are seven suggestions for taking precautionary steps toward ensuring the safest possible school environment.
Develop a Safety Plan for Multiple Types of Events
Even though the probability of an event occurring on your campus is rare1, schools can no longer just hope that an event will not occur on their campus. Instead, they need a plan in place so that if threatened, faculty and staff know how to act swiftly and effectively to protect our children and save lives.
Experts agree that there is no one-size-fits-all safety plan. Instead, every school needs its own, unique safety plan and procedures. Work with the law enforcement experts in your area to devise a plan that will accommodate the uniqueness of your district’s school buildings, including their size, configuration, distance from the nearest police or fire station, or access to exits, lockable rooms, and other factors. Make sure all faculty and staff are well trained on their roles, and how to direct students in the event of an emergency. Ensure ongoing training is given to faculty and staff, and work with law enforcement to reevaluate your safety plan annually to ensure the policies are still appropriate, and that your response plan is still viable.
Make the Mental Health of Your Students a Priority
According to NPR, each year, one in five children in the U.S. experiences some kind of mental disorder, such as depression, anxiety disorders, and others2. And a large number of those dealing with a mental health disorder (some estimate upwards of 75%) do not receive the proper support, treatment and services3. Students with mental health disorders are in jeopardy of developing substance use disorders, withdrawing socially, letting grades slip, and are at risk for suicide. In fact suicide is the second leading cause of death for ages 10-244. In order to keep our students safe (even from themselves), we must pay attention to what is going on. Many times the adults in schools are not trained to recognize signs and symptoms of mental health disorders in their students — as such many students go unassisted. Invest in mental health training and development for all staff. Make sure your school psychologist and counselors have the correct resources, connections and tools to do their jobs. Teach students how to recognize someone who might be suffering in silence.
Include Parents and Guardians in Your Planning and Communications
When it comes to the safety of your students, parents are your allies. Involve them in the planning and preparation process. Make sure that they too know what procedures are to be followed if an emergency occurs, including how you would communicate with parents and the community. Encourage parents to talk to their children at home about how they should behave during a lockdown or fire drill and provide age-appropriate responses and guidelines that parents can follow to hold conversations with their children.
Put a Safety Communication Plan in Place
Many schools have adopted text based communication systems so that all parents, community members, staff, etc. are notified in case of an emergency. Keep parents informed to both protect them and to avoid campus congestion that could hinder the ability for police, fire, and medical personnel to reach the entrances to your school as quickly as possible.
Protect Your School from Intruders
Evaluate the safety of your campus to ensure that outsiders do not have a way to get inside. School doors should be locked during the day, and all visitors should be required to check in with school staff and wear a name tag. Also, consider if extra sets of doors or thick window glass would be appropriate safety additions to your buildings. On campus, cameras can be used to verify the identity of visitors outside the building attempting to come inside. Although controversial, in some cases, metal detectors or bullet proof glass may even be considered by school leaders.
Remain Hyper-vigilant Against Threats
Today, school leaders are more aware of the risk of an attack coming not just from an outside intruder — but from a student. Some schools have created “threat-assessment teams.” The teams are comprised of faculty and staff who aim to identify students who may be in need of outreach or assistance to deal with a mental health illness, substance abuse, or other issues that, if left uncared for, could exacerbate and result in the student lashing out in violence. These teams are a requirement for public schools in the state of Virginia, but in many other areas, schools are voluntarily implementing the programs.
More Student Safety Resources:
For additional resources and support, the American Association of School Administrators (AASA) provides some helpful tools for school leaders.
1. Ropeik, D. (2018, March 08). School shootings are extraordinarily rare. Why is fear of them driving policy? Retrieved May 30, 2019, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/school-shootings-are-extraordinarily-rare-why-is-fear-of-them-driving-policy/2018/03/08/f4ead9f2-2247-11e8-94da-ebf9d112159c_story.html?utm_term=.4ce944df0705↩
2. Anderson, M., & Cardoza, K. (2016, August 31). Mental Health In Schools: A Hidden Crisis Affecting Millions Of Students. Retrieved May 30, 2019, from https://www.npr.org/sections/ed/2016/08/31/464727159/mental-health-in-schools-a-hidden-crisis-affecting-millions-of-students
3. Paolini, A. (2015). School Shootings and Student Mental Health: Role of the School Counselor in Mitigating Violence. Ideas and Research You Can Use: VISTAS 2015. Retrieved May 30, 2019, from https://www.counseling.org/docs/default-source/vistas/school-shootings-and-student-mental-health.p↩
4. The Parent Resource Program. (n.d.). Youth Suicide Statistics. Retrieved from http://prp.jasonfoundation.com/facts/youth-suicide-statistics/