5 school safety questions your district should be prepared to answer
As the new school year gets rolling, safety is top of mind for parents, educators, district leaders, and students
With students and educators reentering their classrooms for the 2022-23 school year, district leaders need to be able to reassure everyone in their school community that school safety is a priority and that they will be safe physically, socially, and emotionally.
Decades’ worth of research have shown that school safety, school climate, and student well-being are all important for academic achievement. The conditions that support them are complex and ever-shifting, which means it’s a constant challenge to create an optimal learning environment. That’s why district leaders should always be ready to explain what their school safety plans are and how their administration arrived at them.
Be prepared to answer these five questions on the topic of school safety from parents, educators, and students as you head back to school:
- What is our district-wide approach to safety and what mechanisms are in place to ensure it is known and followed?
As we’ve seen over the past year, emergencies due to natural disasters, medical situations, active shooter threats, and other causes can happen at any place and time. Having a comprehensive security and safety program is one of district leaders’ most important responsibilities.
The federal government recommends that every district create an Emergency Operations Plan (school EOP) that outlines how it will prepare for, respond to, and recover from an emergency. In addition to having an updated EOP based on risk assessments and lessons your school has learned over time, it’s crucial to train staff through education and drills in coordination with local first responders; test communications systems; conduct audits; run alerts and reunification drills; and update building maps. Today’s representative safety training is going beyond the typical active shooter training and fire drills, and now incorporates many all-hazard situations as well as training on bullying, suicide, and basic first aid.
2. What is your district doing to deter attacks and violence?
Violence is preventable. Early detection, assessment, and intervention in cases where individuals may pose a threat are crucial.
Putting tools and technology in place to detect and become aware of threats is an important part of a holistic approach. Programs to educate students, staff, and the community on how to recognize concerning behavior and report tips and information anonymously are table-stakes high today. And, in today’s digital world, threats and warning signs are abundant – something known as “leakage” – which can be detected through email and social media scanning technology, as well as web filtering that can detect high-risk issues at scale using artificial intelligence (AI). These tools help schools get ahead of harmful intent before it escalates.
Rapid assessment and intervention are key once a tip or risk has been identified. There are many models for identifying, assessing, and supporting students who exhibit challenging behaviors. The two most important elements of any model are to first, make sure sufficient information is collected and connected so no threat-related data is left unexamined, and second, apply a multi-tiered intervention approach with supporting educational tools and resources to ensure safe, positive and sustainable change – while still ensuring that districts comply with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).
3. When it’s not a drill, what is in place to ensure seamless, fast communication with first responders, and how do we ensure safety until help arrives?
The average duration of a violent critical incident is 5 minutes long – and the national average law enforcement response time is 3 to 5 minutes. During those precious minutes, it’s imperative that school officials can communicate with law enforcement and first responders so they can accurately gauge the situation and put plans into action.
Three states (Florida, New York, and New Jersey) have passed laws addressing the issue of emergency response time with silent panic alert systems linked directly to first responders and law enforcement agencies. Named Alyssa’s Laws after a victim of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School tragedy, legislation requiring the installation of time-saving silent panic buttons is gaining momentum in other states as well.
Leveraging available technology to streamline communication during a crisis and reducing the potential for human error during a stressful time is vital. It is also critical to speed up the processes of establishing safety checkpoints, accounting for individual students and educators, and managing reunification with parents.
To secure safety within the school until help arrives, a multi-option response is the federally recommended model for active threats. It incorporates a variety of strategies for protecting students and faculty during a violent incident, including: 1) fleeing the scene, if possible; 2) if unable to flee, enhanced lockdown that includes barricading in a room with environmental objects; and 3) as a last resort, distraction, movement, noise, and swarming the gunman.
Training for a multi-option response teaches everyone in the school community situational awareness skills to help them make informed decisions and choose strategies specific to their circumstances. In addition to age- and ability-appropriate considerations, it’s critical to take a trauma-informed approach to these trainings so educators and students leave feeling prepared and empowered.
4. How do we reunite students with parents and guardians?
Planning for reunification starts with having accurate and up-to-date documentation of students, volunteers, and staff – and making sure that information is accessible during an emergency to help limit chaos. Next comes figuring out evacuation routes from all parts of the campus, with contingencies for different scenarios and considerations for mobility-limited individuals or those with special needs.
When setting up the reunification site itself (as well as a backup site should the first site be compromised), it’s important to consider that it be accessible, flexible, and safe, with plenty of space for sharing information privately should the need arise to tell a family their loved one has been wounded, is missing, or is deceased. It should also include quick access to mental health and trauma resources, sufficient internet and cell phone signals, clear entrance and exit routes for families, and sites for media to set up.
Finally, coordinating and practicing at the site with the emergency team – those responsible for accounting for students, communicating with families, coordinating with media, providing transportation and more – will help identify glitches. Training staff, students, and families in the reunification plan increases confidence and builds awareness of what to do during a real event.
5. How do we maintain a culture and practice of school safety?
Look ahead and identify your priorities. Address ongoing challenges. Adapt current plans for changing circumstances. Follow up on opportunities to be proactive and improve on what’s already in place. Next steps might include:
- A full-scale risk assessment.
- More effective behavioral and mental health plans, including behavioral threat assessment, suicide awareness and prevention, and behavioral intervention supports.
- Updates to training your educators and staff have received to ensure understanding and compliance.
- Regularly scheduled drills.
- Incident tracking and reporting.
By answering these five questions, you help ensure that the entire community is on the same page in terms of training, technology, and planning to address potential threats to students’ safety. And when students feel secure and supported in their environment, they’re more likely to be on track to reach their full academic potential.