Op-Ed: School safety tips

From hazardous materials to shootings, school safety advocate on ways to make schools more secure

The contrast between safety in schools and schools systems astounds me. We recently worked with schools in the Asheville, N.C., region who have been steadfastly improving their safety program from the past two years. A four district regional collaborative has conducted hundreds of training sessions, planning meetings, consulting sessions and drills and exercises to enhance the level of emergency preparedness for all four participating districts. The districts are developing a series of advanced but concise customized training DVD's and video crisis scenarios to more effectively educate and prepare school employees. The districts are printing revised emergency reference charts for different categories of employees such as administrators, teachers, school bus drivers and custodians that are integrated, yet specific to different job roles.

During the project, a major hazardous materials event threatened the safety of thousands of students and staff. The incident was handled almost flawlessly by well-prepared school and public safety officials. The long term and effective efforts by these four districts have required a level of commitment above that of most school systems in the United States and abroad. However, the results have proven to be well worth the investment in time and money.

About this time, a multiple victim school shooting took place in another school district, demonstrating some pretty serious gaps in the district’s level of safety and emergency preparedness. A district administrator was contacted by multiple students with concerns about the student prior to the incident and it is clear the best practice of multi-disciplinary threat assessment was not utilized. The district was still reliant upon the use of code phrases to signal emergency situations and, as has happened on numerous occasions around the nation, many staff and students misunderstood the codes and did not understand what they were supposed to do. The use of codes to signal lockdowns, and other emergency functions is a pretty well known planning flaw because the concept has failed so many times before. The United States Department of Education and the Federal Emergency Management Agency have been advising schools not to use codes for this reason for some time now. After this incident, students, parents and even school employees have appeared in the national media criticizing the lack of safety measures at the school where the shooting took place.

Having worked with more than 2,000 public and independent schools and school districts worldwide, we are impressed with how much effort goes into safety at some schools and shocked at how little is in place at others. Clearly some school educational organizations are alert and vigilant while others are not so focused on safety. Most educational organizations lie somewhere between these two extremes. You did not hear about the first school district in the media because the potential tragedy they faced was averted by their vigilance. Each day, students continue to learn there instead of being continually distracted by the tragedy that could have easily struck had school officials not been so focused on safety. Conversely, the school shooting mentioned above is a good example of why making safety must be a priority. The district will now assuredly face considerable civil liability, staff and students have been injured and many more emotionally traumatized, key school officials will spend thousands of hours trying to respond to the incident, public confidence has been severely shaken and the process of education has come to a screeching halt. Sadly, many educational organizations have found themselves in this predicament with immeasurable damage to people and the very process of education.

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