School Safety: What Can a Parent Do?

In light of the recent tragedy in Connecticut and the increased violence in our nation’s schools, we have received a plethora of questions from school administrators and parents searching for ways to improve school security and to strengthen the parental approval of new security policies.

There are several political issues that can support the reduction of violence in the broad sense, but in this article, I will focus on those items that can be implemented today at the ground level.

Society tends to react in a “knee-jerk” way to problem solving, but at the core, is the misconception that violence can be eliminated just by making physical changes like enhancing door locks, tightening lockdown policies and/or using video surveillance. While these are essential elements of a total strategy, long-term solutions need to include far more.

What should parents be doing?

Take care of yourself first

While it may seem counterintuitive to think about taking care of yourself before your child, studies have shown that in the wake of a natural or manmade disaster, the emotional stability and security of parents must come first. It runs parallel to what we’ve heard for years from the airlines, “If the pressure drops, put the oxygen mask on yourself first, and then help the child next to you.”

Children react to what they observe and hear from others, especially their parents. Children are serious spectators. They are influenced by the behavior that has been modeled by their parents (a well known psychological theory on how children learn). This doesn’t mean you should remain unemotional through difficult times, but it does mean that you have to be honest. Expressing your own feelings of sadness, distress and concern is appropriate, but remember to do so in a calm, stable, comforting and reassuring manner. Young children have yet to develop the ability to rationalize. Therefore, it’s very easy for a child to go from fear straight into inconsolable panic.

The consequences of “Avoidance and Denial”

One of the most infuriating impediments we face is a parent who denies the fact that violence can occur in their child’s school. We’ve al heard the cliché, “it won’t happen here.” Sadly enough, I can now introduce you to more than a million people in the peaceful, backcountry of Connecticut who would beg to differ.

Regardless of how quintessential an area may be or how intimate a community may feel, indiscriminate violence can erupt anywhere. However, once a parent can move past the fear (avoidance) and accept that a possibility does exist, the greater contribution and awareness to a school’s safety plan they can be. For example, parents who chose to deny the fact that safety is a “real” concern will also downplay the need to teach safety at home. Our children need to be aware of their surroundings and feel confident in their abilities if a situation were to occur. With knowledge comes confidence.

Tell me what to do

Call your child’s school and request a copy of their safety plan – read it. If something doesn’t feel right, ask. Share your thoughts with other parents, form a parent-led committee, join the PTA and stay proactive. In today’s economy, where budget cutbacks are a daily occurrence, school safety needs to be monitored closely and decisions should not be made through a fiscal lens. The collective voice of parents is one of the most powerful tools in forming policies and procedures.

While this is not intended to be an exhaustive list, school safety plans should include policies and procedures that pertain to: locked doors, internal or externally communicated threats, unfamiliar persons, accidents, staff training, infectious outbreaks, behavioral problems, bullying or intimidation, roles and responsibilities, substance abuse, weapons or shootings, suspicious odors, natural or manmade disasters, bomb threats, fires, drop off and pickup policies, visitors, deliveries, video and/or audio surveillance, and much more.

A plan should also include detailed response plans for each incident or categories of incidents, which include when children are evacuated verse remain in place, when lockdowns are triggered, traffic coordination (for example, if 200 parents pull into the parking lot at the same time), communication to parents and other VIPs, when other schools are alerted, frequency of plan audits, exercises or tabletop drills, as well as establishing designated areas, roles and responsibilities for incident management and coordination and more. Again, this is not intended to be an exhaustive list, rather to provide you with a general expectation of what to look for and to better understand the importance of a thorough and well-anticipated plan of action.

What should our schools be doing?

We’ve compiled a short list of the “must-haves” for every school. We strongly encourage our readers to be diligent in seeing to it that this happens in your district.

School Resource Officers (SRO)

A school resource officer is a certified police officer who has received specialized training in a variety of school protection and collaboration efforts. Officers not only obtain tactical training in active shooter drills and emergency response, but also serve integral roles in overall safety. SROs receive basic training in counseling, child abuse, adolescent emotional issues, special education, public speaking and more. As a result of the dynamic instruction they have received, officers have the opportunity to interact with children on a daily basis. This contact provides an opportunity to learn about each student, observe different “groups” around campus and can become a confidential resource for children.

As a footnote, when a school suggests hiring a security guard as opposed to a trained SRO, I encourage parents to question the legitimacy of this guard’s role and responsibility, as well as their training. While guards can give the illusion of added security, it’s not a solution. We’re looking for more than adequate preparations and extensive solutions.

School bus safety

On a day-to-day basis, the most pressing concern about school bus safety typically involves student behavior and associated school bus discipline. Our school bus drivers are the first and last school employees to see our children on a daily basis and our buses must be viewed as extensions of our schools. Many school bus drivers have not received adequate training, and in some cases, any training at all on dealing with school safety threats. In addition to student misconduct, irate parents also pose a concern to school bus drivers.

Part of establishing an overall safety plan should include pre-employment screening and interviewing protocols for new bus drivers, provide comprehensive training on student behavior management, discipline procedures, working with special education and special needs students and dealing with irate parents. Furthermore, employing the effective use of technology, such as two-way backup communications capabilities and surveillance cameras, on school buses should be standard practice.

Unique identification process

Many schools have recently implemented a staff and visitor identification system used primarily at the front entrance (other entrances and exits are locked). Staff typically wear photo IDs and visitors are usually required to present a government issued ID when arriving – usually their driver’s license. We see this as an important step, but not the correct strategy. Presenting a drivers license upon entering a facility achieves little, unless the name is being cross-referenced against a database to immediately inform staff whether or not the person is allowed to enter. Regrettably, most schools glance at the ID, log a visitor in by hand and allow entry.

What does this do?

The purpose of identifying people at the main entrance is to know whether or not they are allowed on school grounds. This doesn’t achieve that goal. We recommend that schools issue unique photo identification cards. For example, ABC School System would issue a photo ID to each person who is named on a family’s “approved” list and entry into the school would be dependent on the result of an electronic swipe of this card upon entry. Instantly, the system would allow or deny entry. What this new system does is ensure that the school has pre-authorized visitors and eliminates simple forgery.

Keep in mind that to keep children safe, schools must follow procedures that adhere to the “approved list” by not permitting a parent without custody rights, those with restraining orders, previous caretakers, old family members, former emergency contacts and others to have access.

Threat Assessment Team

Threat assessment teams are school administrators and professionals from outside. Typical team makeup, depending on resources, may include 2-3 senior school officials, a police officer, a mental health professional, possibly an attorney and a threat assessment professional. Each member receives outside training in threat assessment and management (TAM) or is trained by the professional on the team. The group is tasked with handling three elements of violence prevention:

  1. To investigate the motivation behind the threat maker.
  2. To analyze the data and determine the creditability of the threat.
  3. To determine the most effective mitigation strategy.

Some examples of situations that school threat assessment teams may be faced with are:

  • A teacher reports, “John told his friends not to go to the cafeteria at noon on Tuesday because something big is going to happen.”
  • Jake, who has appeared withdrawn and irritable the past few weeks, handed in a written story about a student putting a bomb in an empty school.
  • Sandy brought bullets to school to show friends.
  • Alex, who got pushed around after gym class, stormed out in tears shouting, “You’re all going to pay!”
  • A parent calls and verbally threatens a teacher stating, “watch your back” and slams the phone down.

It is understandable for school officials to be tempted to make fear-based decisions when faced with these types of threats, however; cognitive, analytical, decision-making is imperative. While school administrators may be quick to evacuate or close down schools, this may not be the most appropriate action, especially if the credibility of the threat is in question. We do not believe schools need “paralysis-by-analysis” guiding their decision-making process, but we believe that threat assessment protocols should be in place for a joint evaluation of threats. Every time a school goes into a “lock down” or increases police presence, it causes anxiety and fear. We must only respond when warranted and certainly not with quick, knee jerk reactions.

Incident reporting system

An incident reporting system is a critical element in an overall school safety plan. It allows students, teachers and parents to report an incident directly to a threat assessment team for further investigation. Without going into details regarding the parameters for establishing these types of systems, it is sufficient to know that an imperative facet of an overall safety plan is to have a proven and anonymous method for collecting information and immediately disseminating it to those who need to know. We are believers that the effectiveness and efficiency of this system is one of the most critical features of the process – one that needs to work flawlessly.

Increase mental health resources

Children need counselors and mental health professionals who are not only trained in acute trauma, but who are involved in their day-to-day programming. In the wake of the Newtown, Connecticut shooting, it is likely that when someone mentions the words “school violence,” we think of this type of mass shooting. However, school violence can be a case of bullying, verbal abuse, harassment, stalking, intimidation or threatening – to name just a few. The scope of violence that our children face far exceeds the narrow description that our media highlights as “school violence.”

Schools need to create programs that teach empathy, help children feel comfortable talking about their experiences and incorporate programs that focus on developing a positive self-image. We need to provide mental health training to our teachers, allowing them to lead programs that support this new kind of healthy development.

Get a child on the radar

Schools must prevent a child from “falling between the cracks.” How can teachers and administrators get to know our children well enough so that if they need emotional support or intervention, it will be made available? In make shift classrooms, or over-crowded classes or rural schools, how is it possible? Is it reasonable that children who need help will be noticed? Reviewing some incidents of school violence, we all struggle from an initial shock over what has occurred. Then someone undoubtedly asks the question, “How could a child with such problems go undetected.”

We hope you were able to gain insight from this article, not only from pragmatic solutions, but also in recognizing the importance of your involvement.

If you have questions or concerns, please feel free to contact us

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