School Climate & Safety Opinion

How to Strengthen the Safety and Security of Your School

Guidance to help school leaders feel empowered to address school safety
By Lindsay Burton & Michelle Kefford — January 22, 2024 6 min read
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The school shooting in Perry, Iowa, this month and the mass shooting in Lewiston, Maine, in October that left 18 dead drives home the grim reality that gun violence can infiltrate any corner of our society. For those of us entrusted with the safety of our students, these tragedies underscore the urgent need to reinforce and rethink our schools’ protective measures. To assist students and educators confronting this reality, we want to offer resources to ensure that students nationwide can pursue their studies and school activities in safe, welcoming, and supportive environments.

According to a survey by the National Association of Secondary School Principals, only 53 percent of students in grades 8-12 say their school is “extremely” or “very” safe, with both school leaders and students citing ongoing concerns around such potential threats as online and in-person bullying, drug use, gun violence, and more.

As leaders who engage with and serve as a resource for school administrators and personnel on important school safety matters and their impact on school environments, we recognize and understand this concern firsthand. To help connect our nation’s dedicated school leaders with helpful resources, guidance, and evidence-based best practices that can meaningfully strengthen the safety and security of their school this year and beyond, we offer the following guidance:

1. Plan for emergencies early and often and listen to all voices in your school community.

Although incidents like school shootings are rare, it is important to plan and prepare for a crisis. School leaders, including principals and assistant principals, play a critical role in emergency planning. In addition to managing school operations, school leaders provide essential services and supports, which can improve overall preparedness, while also serving as trusted sources for members of the school community to speak with and confidentially report potential concerns.

During the development and subsequent updates of safety processes, it is important for school leaders to create intentional spaces for both students and staff to have their voices heard. One initiative developed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to foster opportunities for student engagement is “Kefford’s Kitchen” (as in co-author and Principal Michelle Kefford), where students can join her for lunch. During this conversation, students can make suggestions and ask questions (even anonymously at another time) across a range of topics that are top of mind for them. Similarly, “Mid-Week Muffins with Michelle” is open to staff so they can offer their opinions and feedback to school administrators to help refine safety planning.

Throughout the year, school leaders can take a proactive approach to emergency planning and help ensure the entire school community is as prepared as possible for potential incidents. Consider carving out time to review your emergency-operations plans (EOP) and practicing key elements. Practice may include holding tabletop exercises to test specific procedures or conducting developmentally appropriate drills so all members of the school community can run through the actions they would take before, during, and after an emergency. It is critical that schools collaborate with their community partners—local emergency-management staff, law enforcement and other first responders, and public and mental health officials—during the school safety planning process and throughout the year. These partners can provide school leaders with essential expertise and guidance to ensure that the school EOP is integrated with community efforts.

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An equally important but sometimes overlooked element of emergency planning is to map out how your school will recover if an incident does occur, along with the actions the school will take to support the academic, physical, fiscal, and emotional recovery of the education community. Created by current and former school leaders who have experienced gun-violence tragedies at their schools, the Guide to Recovery from the NASSP Principal Recovery Network identifies some of the issues schools commonly face when recuperating from a traumatic event. These include identifying financial resources available to assist with recovery, connecting the community with mental health personnel, responding to offers of assistance from the community, supporting the reopening of a school, and attending to the ongoing needs of students and staff.

2. Keep track of relevant school safety resources and evidence-based best practices.

Although there are extensive resources available that address school safety, it can sometimes be overwhelming to find and easily leverage this information in a well-organized and meaningful way. Schools have individual needs and unique characteristics that require thoughtful consideration and reflection. To help provide schools with direct access to relevant, timely, and useful school safety information that can help before, during, and after a potential emergency, the federal government created SchoolSafety.gov. Through this site, school leaders can utilize tools to prioritize school safety actions, find applicable resources on a range of important school safety topics, find expertise and connect with school safety officials specific to their state, and develop school safety plans that meet unique school needs. The U.S. Department of Homeland Security created the Prevention Resource Finder to help the full range of education stakeholders identify resources, training, research, grant funding, and other opportunities.

3. Provide leaders with access to grants and funding opportunities to financially support school safety efforts.

Because schools and districts often require additional funding to support and implement various school safety measures and initiatives, it’s important to remember that the process to locate and secure necessary funding oftentimes requires year-round attention and effort. To help schools more easily identify, plan for, and apply for applicable funding opportunities that can help keep their school community safe, SchoolSafety.gov provides a comprehensive Grants Finder Tool featuring federally available school safety grants. While it can’t solve the entire grants-management process, the tool can help school leaders navigate at least part of the financial pathway.

If a tragedy occurs at a school, no matter where it is located, we all feel the impact and want to do everything we can to prevent it from happening again. Creating a safe and supportive school environment is a common goal shared by everyone in the community—our children, educators, and dedicated school staff deserve it. In preparation for the worst-case scenario, take some time to think through your school’s current approach to school safety. By sharing these resources and recommended practices, we hope to help school leaders feel ready and empowered to address school safety throughout the year.

The United States government, including the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), does not endorse any non-federal entity (NFE), commercial product, process, or service. Any reference to specific NFEs, commercial products, processes, or services by name, service mark, trademark, manufacturer or otherwise, does not constitute or imply the endorsement, recommendation, or favoring by the U.S. government, CISA, or DHS. CISA does not attest to or guarantee the accuracy of any non-federal websites or the information they contain. Reference to any specific commercial product, practice, process, or service, or the use of any trade, firm, or corporation name is for the information and convenience of the public and is intended to educate the public on relevant topics in this field.

A version of this article appeared in the February 07, 2024 edition of Education Week as How to Strengthen the Safety And Security of Your School


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