The horrific tragedy in Newtown, Conn., illustrates the escalating anti-social, high-risk behavior that may expose our schools to personal injury, property damage and disruptions to the educational environment. This event may have pushed our society beyond its tolerance threshold, turning talk into real action that addresses our collective desire to give our children a safe environment in which they may develop socially and academically.
With a balanced approach, somewhere between siege mentality and general indifference, positive steps can improve school security.
Schools should implement strategies of cautionary vigilance. But they will have to overcome the perception that school security is a budgetary “add-on.” Our new paradigm dictates that school safety is an integral part of a school’s infrastructure as much as bricks and mortar. What can school districts do to approach this task systematically and analytically?
First, school leaders must reassure students and parents that their school is safe by implementing an actionable safety plan. Knowing that responsible adults are taking action to address safety issues is more encouraging for the school community than the notion of, “It won’t happen in our school.”
Maine should require every school to develop a multi-agency, crisis-management plan and provide the resources, guidelines and training. This kind of preparedness is sound public policy and is the least that we should expect of our schools.
Research has already identified the components of such an operational school safety plan for grades pre-kindergarten through 12, comprised of the following components:
1. Perform safety drills, which are mandated by law and are familiar to all. When was the last time your child’s school was subjected to a “stress test?” Annual school safety plan audits should consider: How current is our plan? Is all of the school staff knowledgeable about the plan and updated regarding any changes? Does the plan call for regular safety drills that include certified and noncertified staff? Do teachers, students, noncertified staff and school administrators have clearly defined roles and actions to take in the event of a school crisis? What is the training and practice frequency?
Every aspect of the plan should incorporate staff redundancy when assigning specific response tasks. Each school should review its physical plant and consider potential student safety zones. Lockdowns must be practiced frequently, and all schoolrooms should have two methods for communicating with the office.
2. Schools need regularly scheduled school safety audits that evaluate safety vulnerabilities due to structural characteristics of the school and patterns of building use. Staff should consider how to monitor and manage the location of schools’ entrances and exits. They should review interior and exterior surveillance capabilities.
3. There should be schoolwide disciplinary policies. Like parental expectations at home, school disciplinary policies should be consistent, predictable and perceived as fair by students. These policies should reflect the normative values and beliefs of the entire community. The policies should be made public and be implemented fairly and decisively.
4. Schools should monitor their campus. This is perhaps the easiest thing schools can do to improve their safety. Studies indicate that open campuses allowing upperclassmen to leave and return during the school day increases the level of difficulty in controlling contraband. Implementing an identification program, which acknowledges how students and other adults who belong in the school are recognized and identified, is essential.
5. Conduct an evaluation of the school’s safety. Every school should be obliged to conduct an annual evaluation of its relative safety. Within the context of their community, schools should perform a self-assessment of risk indicators associated with existing, problematic student issues and generate risk-reduction measures.
The information gleaned from reviewing these essential elements can provide a comprehensive profile of a school’s safety quotient, leading to an effective school safety plan. Can these measures guarantee violence-free schools? Obviously not, but they may deter, delay and discourage such attempts.
As owner of Safe Harbor-Safe Schools, Lawrence Nocera brings 30 years combined experience as a former school district security coordinator, high school administrator, educator and consultant. Safe Harbor-Safe Schools, out of Stonington, is a consulting firm focusing on school security and emergency management.