School Climate & Safety Opinion

5 Critical Strategies to Make Your School Safer

Leaders share actionable advice for defending students’ physical, mental, and emotional health
By Doug Roberts, Ann Levett & Shanna Downs — June 01, 2023 5 min read
Illustration of a group of people forming the shape of a shield around a school building.
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When students walk into their classrooms each morning, their parents and educators should feel joy that their children are learning, building new skills, and making friends. Instead, they feel fearful and anxious because of ongoing school violence.

To keep everyone safe at school, districts across the country are continually evolving and expanding security measures. At a national superintendent leadership summit hosted by the Institute for Education Innovation in 2021, the conversation centered mostly on social-emotional learning, mental health services, and supporting the whole child. Recently, focus has shifted to more defensive tactics, including hardening facilities with physical and technologically advanced security upgrades and increasing scenario-based active-shooter trainings.

But the big question remains: How can we know which security mechanisms are the most effective?

While we can never completely guarantee our children’s safety, school leaders must do everything in our power to protect them. Last fall, superintendents from across the country gathered in Hilton Head, S.C., for an IEI leadership summit on new strategies to defend students’ physical, mental, and emotional health.

Over the course of the summit, a holistic approach to school security emerged to provide district leaders with actionable next steps centered on five key factors:

  1. Upgrade school facilities as a start, not a solution. In an informal survey of summit attendees, all respondents reported their districts had upgraded security infrastructure over the past two years, with enhancements like keyless door entries and door-ajar sensors, secure vestibules, multifactor authentication, and fewer entry points with metal detectors and scanners.

    However, when superintendents considered which safety ideas to take back to their districts, building improvements played second string to approaches that focused more on school community and relationship building.

  2. Strengthen school-student relationships as a critical line of defense. Increasing the number of staff focused on mental health, supporting children where they are, and cultivating educator-student relationships are proven and proactive ways to help mitigate safety issues. When children feel a sense of belonging, they feel secure sharing their fears and emotions and are more comfortable reporting potential violent threats to a trusted adult. Students also recognize their role in keeping schools safe when they can report threats.

    One district assigned students a mentor in the building who they could turn to for help. Throughout the year, teachers and staff fostered these relationships to know their mentees and better identify any potential warning signs.

  3. Revisit threat-training policies, protocols, and procedures. We must address school safety in strategic planning the same way we do academic and financial matters. District leaders have a duty to review and revise threat-assessment and emergency-preparedness policies each year and to lead efforts to ensure protocols are made more visible, practiced by staff and students, and adjusted as necessary to address any vulnerabilities.

    At the same time, leaders must not overlook the impact of active-shooter drills on students and staff. A school district in Illinois located near the scene of the 4th of July shooting in Highland Park allows students to opt out of drills and provides counselors to teachers who may need additional emotional support. Because drills can increase a child’s anxiety and stress by upward of 40 percent, schools must be considerate of how they handle them, especially with elementary students. What is the line to walk between protecting kids from being unnecessarily scared and ensuring that we can protect them?

    A major takeaway for attendees moving forward was the need to improve their crisis-communication strategies. Along with identifying who in the district will serve in key communication roles, superintendents should review their family communication tools to ensure information can be relayed quickly and effectively. Building stronger relationships with local media that can share updates with the community is one way.

  4. Elevate community engagement to ensure everyone plays a role. Superintendents at the summit emphasized collective community responsibility for student safety and health. Inviting a broader pool of community stakeholders to share ideas and supports and connecting with potential partners outside school doors, such as mental health resources, nonprofits, and law enforcement, make children’s safety a value and obligation for everyone.

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  5. Improve trust between school resource officers and students to build safer schools. One superintendent explained that SROs are not disciplinarians. They are on site to protect students, and students feel a greater sense of protection when they know people in charge see them as individuals and respect their experiences.

    According to attendees, districts must partner with law enforcement to ensure SROs receive proper defensive training, are skilled in safely de-escalating potentially harmful situations, and understand local cultural diversity to best care for a child in a time of crisis. SROs should also serve in a student-support role to help kids feel that they are protected, not policed. They should be active participants in the school community, trusted by students and parents alike, which will simultaneously make students feel safe and deter bad actors.

    At Westbury Union Free school district in New York, leaders forged a strong partnership with their local homeland-security office to build up their safety-response and -planning team. However, Superintendent Tahira DuPree Chase noted that it’s the relationships officers built with students that stand out:

    “When they’re here, they’re mentoring and encouraging our kids. When we have spelling bees and cooking contests, they’re our judges. When there’s a basketball game, they’re cheering the players on.”

As educators and district leaders, we wish we could find a single solution to solve escalating violence. But for now, we’re doing what we can to integrate different action steps into a safety strategy we believe best fits our schools’ and students’ needs. The responsibility can feel overwhelming, but it’s important to remember you’re not in this alone. Everyone has a stake in our students’ safety, and involving families, community organizations, and especially your peers in planning can increase your confidence that you’re making the right choices for students.

A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2023 edition of Education Week as 5 Critical Strategies To Make Your School Safer


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