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A former K-5 public school principal turned author, presenter, and leadership coach, Peter DeWitt provides insights and advice for education leaders. Former superintendent Michael Nelson is a frequent contributor. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

School Safety Means More Than Active-Shooter Drills

By Amy Klinger — January 13, 2019 4 min read
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Today’s guest blog is written by Dr. Amy Klinger, the director of programs at The Educator’s School Safety Network. You can visit The Educator’s School Safety Network at www.eschoolsafety.org.

With the recent release of the initial report on the February 2018 tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, school safety discussions in 2019 are laser-focused on active-shooter situations, or worse yet, arming teachers. The report’s recounting of the horrific details and failures of the tragedy in Parkland, Fla., is a grim reminder of the worst nightmares of educators, parents, and students. It’s only natural then, that educators and law-enforcement officers find themselves immersed in—and sometimes overcome by—the confusion, divisiveness, and raw emotions engendered by an examination of the tragedy. But it’s important to remember that a madman with a gun is not the only, or even most likely, crisis event that a school will face.

As schools rush to have numerous active-shooter drills, or have lockdown after lockdown in the wake of threats, two important truths must be acknowledged.

First, active-shooter preparation alone will not keep our students safe. Most schools have not considered, planned, or trained using the established best practice of a comprehensive, all-hazards approach to school safety. This means that while the school is spending time on the potentially catastrophic, but statistically unlikely event of an active shooter, they are not preparing to deal with the myriad of crises that they are much more likely to face. Our research indicates that so far this school year, there has already been a bomb detonation in a school as well as another explosive device found. In a single week in October 2018, five children were killed in school bus accidents. Three stabbings occurred this fall, there were sexual assaults reported in three different schools in a two-week period, and more than 24 plots for violence were thwarted. All of these were dangerous, deadly occurrences—and none of them was an active shooter or required an active-shooter response.

When a school plans and trains for an active-shooter response at the exclusion of everything else, critical prevention activities such as threat assessment, strategic supervision, improving climate and culture, and increasing disclosures are ignored. We cannot protect children and make our schools safer by only reactively planning and practicing what to do after the bullets start flying. We must take a proactive, all-hazards approach that places equal emphasis on preventing and responding to natural disasters, medical emergencies, accidents, and all different kinds of violent acts.

A heavy emphasis on active-shooter response often results in the frequent and often inappropriate use of an old-school “hide-out-and-hope-for-the-best” type of lockdown for every situation. Abraham Maslow’s insight that if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail, is certainly appropriate here. This fall alone, there were hundreds of examples of students and teachers hunkered down in classrooms for hours, wondering if they were the next Parkland, in order to allow administrators and police officers to investigate threats, provide “realistic” lockdown drills, or look for weapons or other contraband. We must acknowledge that there is a cost (and it is significant) to inducing trauma in students or treating them like inmates whose social media is surveilled and who are “contained” in locked classrooms. Remember we are, after all, running schools, not prisons.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy is that it doesn’t have to be this way. By viewing school safety as more than just a nail, educators can work proactively to establish relationship-based cultures that reduce or prevent violence, allow students to feel safe and supported, all while increasing academic achievement. While active-shooter preparation is critical, and lockdowns are an important response option, to keep students safe, we must expand our view of crisis response to incorporate leveled lockdowns, rapid evacuation, barricading, and other protocols for bomb incidents, severe weather, medical emergencies, and acts of violence that don’t necessarily involve a gun.

Amid the chaos, competing interests, political agendas, and general anxiety, let’s start with the thing we can all agree on: No one wants kids dying at school. Sadly, it is also clear that schools must be prepared for the possibility of an active shooter. While it may be easier, “sexier,” or more politically expedient to have a high-profile active-shooter training, the work of crisis planning and response cannot stop there.

Ensuring the safety of the children in our care is the primary mission of all educators—and it is at times a daunting task. Educators, parents, students, and emergency responders must commit to the difficult work and sustained attention that planning for, preventing, and responding to all safety hazards requires.

Dr. Amy Klinger is nationally recognized as an expert in school safety and crisis management. She delivers trainings and lectures to audiences throughout the United States and abroad. As thefounder and director of programs forThe Educator’s School Safety Network. Klinger is an Associate Professor of Educational Administration and Department Chair at Ashland University in Ohio. She is the author of Keeping Students Safe Every Day (ASCD, 2018).

Photo courtesty of Shutterstock.

The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.