School Climate & Safety Opinion

Post-Sandy Hook Strategies

By Ronald D. Stephens — December 12, 2013 5 min read
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Schools continue to be the safest place for young people to be. Although it is difficult for students and the public to embrace this concept immediately after a crisis, it is true. Young people are much more likely to be shot or killed outside of school than they are in school or to be victims of abuse and neglect. Of course, a single death for any reason is one too many, but if we are looking at the probabilities, schools continue to be safe harbors in general.

Ronald D. Stephens

Over the past two decades the United States has experienced approximately 500 school-associated violent deaths at the 130,000 public and private school sites around the country. This represents an average of about 25 violent deaths per year. One could assume this means one death in 25 school sites for each of the past 20 years. However, many schools experienced more than one homicide in a year, meaning that the probability of this kind of violence coming to any one school—to your school—is low.

What Should We Do Now? After the Sandy Hook tragedy, school administrators, community leaders, and parents are asking the same question: What do we do now? How do we create safe campuses for our children without turning them into armed camps? Here are a few suggestions for school administrators.

  • Review your campus safety and crisis plan to identify potentials weaknesses, risks, and threats.
  • Enhance formal supervision for students for those periods of time before and during school and for after-school activities. Identify areas of the school that need special supervision, such as entrance and exit points, cafeterias, recess and recreation areas, student drop-off and pick-up areas, and the like. Assign designated staff members to these areas.
  • Minimize access control for both pedestrian and vehicular traffic. This means, as much as possible, limit the number of entrances and exits to a school.
  • Enhance natural supervision through environmental design by establishing clear sight lines in and around school buildings. Keep shrubbery and bushes trimmed in order to avoid impediments to good supervision.
  • Review your crisis plan in terms of crisis prevention, crisis preparation, crisis management, and crisis response. Make certain that your plan is up to date, that you have individuals assigned to various roles and responsibilities that have been coordinated with local law enforcement and first responders.
  • Train all staff and faculty to be effective crisis responders. States such as California have designated all staff members as crisis responders. Everyone working in a school must be appropriately trained to respond in a crisis.
  • Have multiple back-up options within your plan for various roles and responsibilities. Know who is in charge and empower staff to take the steps they need to promote safety. There should be adequate depth of trained personnel and multiple back-ups or alternates designated for each role in a crisis response.
  • Screen all visitors and guests with robust visitor screening protocols. School officials should not allow their guests to self-process and issue their own visitor passes.
  • Select and train a sworn peace officer to work with your school. An officer can serve as a great crime deterrent.
  • Create a mutual aid agreement with first responders. Each school district and their local law enforcement agency(ies) should develop a mutual aid agreement involving all crisis responder agencies within the community. A mutual aid agreement is a written document among various first-responder agencies that defines roles and responsibilities in the event of a crisis. For instance, law enforcement has a role, the bomb squad, the fire department and paramedics, relevant SWAT teams, local and county police or the sheriff’s office, the local office of emergency services (usually a county office), and the state department of public safety. Each of these agencies will have a specific role. There should be protocols in place for who will be the incident commander in each type of crisis.
  • Develop a viable and user-friendly and parent notification system.
  • Consider special needs students. Schools that have populations of students with special needs should give special attention to their evacuation plans to assist those in wheelchairs and similar situations in their safe evacuation. Taking care of students who have limited mobility or hearing of visual challenges is an important planning provision.
  • Develop robust crisis response and safety plans that focus on self-reliance. Involve your in-school talent, including the school nurse, former military members, and other staffmembers who may be first aid- and CPR-trained. Have emergency supplies and support systems in place on every campus.
  • Build and develop a crisis-response network that capitalizes on local, state, and national resources.
  • Adopt an “all-hazards approach” to crisis planning. Staff training that focuses on an all-hazards response is another significant professional development component. It is important to have regular crisis drill training in which various crisis options are practiced. The all-hazards drill and practice training should include natural disasters and man-made disasters. Consider everything from weather emergencies to chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear disasters.
  • Understand the effects of a school crisis. Just because it did not happen to you does not mean that it didn’t happen to you—we are all affected by the trauma and despair of major events.

When it comes to school safety, we need to do everything we can—knowing we can’t do everything. School systems are not insurers of safety; they are purveyors of education and opportunity. Not even an insurance company can insure against the crime ever occurring; it can only compensate for losses. The strategies that are ultimately chosen are as much about community will as they are about financial capacity. However, all school administrators must bring their A-game to keep their campuses safe.

Ronald D. Stephens is the executive director of the National School Safety Center, in Westlake Village, Calif. The center’s website is www.schoolsafety.us.

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