Assessing and updating your school’s safety strategy is a critical exercise–one worth repeating as often as necessary to stay ahead of threats in an ever-changing, digitally-driven world. We need to have the right people responding to the right issues. From security to mental health and wellness, the collaborative contributions of your school’s safety team foster a systemic approach that promotes trust, coordination, and communication across the board.
The presence of armed guards in hallways and metal detectors greeting students at the door probably seemed impossible at one time. However, rising emotional crisis needs, surges in school violence, and social media’s influence have pushed our educational culture into an unimaginable era. An age in which the need to mitigate risk requires more than secluding or removing students who pose a threat.
At a bare minimum, schools looking to update their safety program must consider:
- Increasing awareness of potential threats and their resources to respond to them
- Deploying appropriate security technology to address and mitigate identified risks
- Retaining highly-trained first responders present to handle emergencies along with ongoing protection
- Having a threat management and assessment program
- Implementing a crisis response plan to minimize the impact of critical events and return the school to normal operations as quickly as possible
Beginning with building awareness, consider your students’ access to and expertise of mental health resources. Perpetrators of violent acts more often than not telegraph some indications they needed help. When such behavior goes unnoticed–or worse, ignored–unimaginable consequences may result. Having dedicated professionals in place to aid in generating awareness of in-person and online signs of student mental health struggles provides a necessary line of proactive defense. Amongst the best ways to be aware of these needs is to ensure that each student has access to a caring adult in the school community, and those adults include teachers, administrators, coaches, counselors, and even custodial staff!
Technology, too, plays a part in generating awareness. Just like the members of your current (or still-forming) safety team vary in their appointed duties, there isn’t a single technological solution that ensures 100% awareness. Instead, a layered approach improves your prevention potential. As vulnerabilities are identified, seek solutions specific to those gaps. For example, physical innovations help ensure the safety of the premise. A solution that provides insights into possible threats shared through public social media and other public data sources could help identify potential harm directed at the school from inside and outside. Because 40% of school violence between 2016-2018 was telegraphed on social media, according to research by the Educator’s School Safety Network.
In response to the shift in risk culture, your first-responder team should be more comfortable than ever with handling data and how to analyze it. Remember, the police aren’t typically the first responders in most school emergencies. That role belongs to the adults in the building with police, fire, and EMS being the second-first responders. That’s in addition to the necessary communication and emergency response skills already required to be effective. In some schools, this is primarily owned by a delegated public safety team. In others, it’s a combination of school staff and outside help.
Their training must be specialized to address the breadth of response types today’s risk culture produces. The stakes are too high. Some schools have updated their job description for their School Safety Specialist to require a minimum number of “successful” years in safety and security. That’s in addition to a master’s degree, preferably in law enforcement.
Putting into play a threat management and assessment process that identifies a multi-disciplinary team; provides training; educates the community; and develops policies that identify thresholds and when to involve law enforcement is essential to addressing behavioral concerns in a balanced and respectful manner.
Finally, recognizing the importance of a well-heeled emergency plan that addresses the myriad of issues that could impact the school and which require mitigation, prevention, response, and recovery components. Having a team, identifying policies, procedures, and guidelines, and then conducting drills to ensure smooth operation in the moment of a crisis is an essential component to school safety.
Beyond the team members themselves, a multitude of tips for enhancing your plan is available through the National School Safety Center. Since 1984, they’ve observed Safe Schools Week and provide an incredibly detailed list of ways to engage every corner of your community in your district’s protective efforts. Combined with the suggestions above, you could increase your ability to answer: What is your school doing to refresh its safety program to keep up with changing times? And is it comprehensive enough to confidently say you’re doing everything you can?