Op-Ed: School safety tips

Jan. 2, 2008
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.

Of course, many readers of this publication know this is not unique to emergency preparedness measures. It is just as common to see schools with no viable access control system in place as it is to see schools that are not prepared for emergency situations. I recently visited a Massachusetts middle school where I found almost every exterior door unlocked and hundreds of students in various parts of the school with no adult supervision. After nearly an hour wandering various parts of the school, I was finally asked by a teacher if I needed assistance. Though the school is in a relatively low crime area, thousands of criminal incidents occur due to poor school access control in other low crime communities demonstrating how dangerous this situation is. A lack of any semblance of access control combined with almost non-existent student supervision is disturbing to say the least. Thankfully, most of the schools I visit are not this careless. While many schools could do a lot more, there has been considerable improvement in school safety and security in the past few decades with favorable results such as the noticeable drop in school homicides in American K12 schools while the homicide rate has risen sharply in other countries such as England.

What can those who wish to help schools improve their security and safety do to help change the attitudes that have so often resulted in needless tragedy in schools? Safe Havens has a reputation for changing the way school officials think about safety. Here are a few approaches that we find to be effective in persuading school leaders to give proper attention to school safety issues:


Never in the history of our nation have educators been so pervasively focused on test scores. Driven by well-meaning government initiatives, the obsession with test scores has become so all encompassing that many educators push other critical issues like safety aside. This has caused many in the field of education to lose sight of the obvious--kids can't learn and teachers can't teach effectively in schools and classrooms that are not safe and orderly. Many of our clients feel that one of the most effective ways to improve test scores is to focus on safety.


About half of all school teachers leave the field of education within the first five years of service in the United States. Former teachers often report they decided to leave the field because of concerns relating to lack of safety, order and discipline. High turnover rates often affect support positions such as school bus drivers, school nurses and other support staff.


Many schools spend a lot on vandalism related maintenance, theft, insurance premiums and litigation because of safety deficiencies. In major incidents, schools have lost millions. For example, one rural Oklahoma district spent one third of its annual budget in just 30 days following a single safety incident. A North Carolina district lost an entire high school due to an arson fire relating to poor access control, only to learn that there was a $15 million gap between the limits of their insurance coverage and the cost of rebuilding the school. More commonly, day-to-day costs can add up to significant expenditures. While many of these costs can be difficult to directly quantify, it is clear to us from our work with schools that schools can reduce fiscal waste by emphasizing safety.


School business officials are often concerned with the costs of litigation following safety incidents. It is not uncommon for schools with a high loss history to be strapped with very high insurance premiums for many years and for insurance companies to require significant future safety and security expenditures to maintain insurance coverage. A proactive approach to safety can reduce exposure to civil liability if an incident does take place.


Many school leaders fail to comprehend the tremendous loss of confidence that can accompany a series of school safety incidents or a single catastrophic event. Safety problems can be a "deal breaker" not only for the school or district, but for individual careers as well. One school system facing ongoing and significant safety issues closed nearly two dozen schools last year. In one multiple victim school shooting case, seven educators ranging from the building principal to the school superintendent of schools left the district within one year of the shooting. For a school superintendent, "experienced a multiple victim school shooting" is probably not a great enhancement to your résumé.


Any school's first legal and moral obligation is the safety of students and staff. Safety is the right thing to do.

About the Author: Michael Dorn is the Executive Director of Safe Havens International Inc. an international non-profit school safety center. On the road more than 300 days this year to make schools safer, Michael is dedicated to the Safe Havens vision of safe, effective and orderly schools. To contact Michael, obtain a free copy of his latest e-book Let None Learn in Fear, or to sign up for the free Safe Havens school safety e-newsletter, visit www.safehavensinternational.org