Opinion
School Climate & Safety Opinion

Two Sandy Hook Moms Speak Out: School Safety Is Up to All of Us

4 lessons on the state of school safety nationwide
By Michele Gay & Alissa Parker — June 19, 2018 5 min read
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Though more than five years have passed since we lost our daughters, Josephine and Emilie, in the Sandy Hook tragedy, school violence still cuts to our cores. Our hearts break for everyone affected by this year’s school shootings, and we understand the frustration and helplessness the rest of the country feels. Parents, students, educators, and the community are not just sitting targets, though. All of us can change the conversation and take control in our own schools to improve the state of school safety.

When we founded the nonprofit Safe and Sound Schools, we focused our mission on comprehensive school safety: crisis prevention, response, and recovery for every student and every school. We bypassed the emotional lightening rod of politics and gun legislation, and instead have focused on providing free programs, resources, and tools school communities can use to take action—immediately—to address safety in their own schools.

As we approached the five-year milestone of our organization’s inception, we wanted to provide another useful, practical tool. We chose to help schools start the school safety process by gaining insight into the state of campus safety. If we don’t have a good handle on what is going on, how can we really address it?

Only half of the students surveyed feel safe at school.

Earlier in 2018, we launched a nationwide survey to measure perceptions and opinions about school safety preparedness, resources, expertise, and improvement opportunities. We heard from more than 2,800 respondents, including parents, middle and high school students, educators, and the general public.

After analyzing the data with input from our network of national experts, schools, students, mental-wellness professionals, public safety officials, and parents, we published the first “State of School Safety” report.

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Intended to help communities identify opportunities for improving school safety, the report reflects a climate of anxiety, fear, and frustration. However, we also learned that the people who matter most aren’t necessarily being heard. As we head into summer, it is the perfect time to plan improved communication within your communities and include all stakeholders once school is back in session. Based on what we learned, those involved in education need to:

  • Repair the communication gap between educators and other stakeholders, particularly parents and students. Our survey found educators are more informed and confident in their preparedness and ability to handle a wide array of safety threats than other survey respondents. While we are happy to see educators informed, we were disheartened to see parents and students paint a different picture. They report a lack of communication between educators, students, and parents. It does not have to be this way. Communication can help bring to light vulnerabilities, identify solutions, expedite implementation of safety initiatives, and reduce anxiety associated with not knowing.
  • Address student dissatisfaction with current safety conversations and actions at their schools. Only half of the students surveyed feel safe at school. More than half of students surveyed think there is a lack of awareness about school safety and their school has a false sense of security. While the timing of the survey—soon after the school shooting in Parkland, Fla.—may contribute to these attitudes, the overall perceptions are in line with feedback we have heard from students for years. Adults in the community need to start asking why students feel this way—and listen to the answers. Students have social connections and information helpful for protecting our schools. We need to give students a seat at the table.
  • Broaden our current narrow view of safety threats and gain more input from the entire school community. While active shooters certainly (and rightfully) weigh heavily on our minds, the threats facing schools today are far more broad and frequent. Respondents have faced much higher incidences of bullying, physical abuse, suicide, racially or minority focused vandalism, and dangerous weather than other safety incidents. It’s critical we prioritize these threats as well. Experts in mental health and wellness, school resource officers, public safety officials, students, parents, and school-based teachers and staff are all needed to evaluate what is working—and what is not—in school safety. Then we can work on mitigation, prevention, and de-escalation of safety threats.
  • Dive deeper into the distinct challenges of smaller schools. Educators at schools with fewer than 500 students report that students feel safe at school at a higher rate than their peers at larger schools. Yet, these schools have lower response rates relating to knowledge of a school safety team or a school resource officer. In addition, educators at smaller schools expressed twice the need for school safety funding than schools with more than 500 students. We need to better understand and address the challenges facing these smaller schools and give them the resources they need to protect their students.

School safety is not one person’s responsibility; it belongs to all of us. There is no one-size-fits-all approach, but everyone can use this report to drive conversations and make progress toward increasing school safety.

Administrators can dive more deeply to study the state of school safety in their own communities to prioritize areas of vulnerability and bring in more experts to the conversation. School leaders can strengthen our human and capital financial resources by communicating more with parents, engaging them to fundraise for specific training or programs, and bringing students into the conversation. Policymakers should play closer attention to these issues, allocating funding and resources to combat the safety blind spots.

The “State of School Safety” report further identifies the undercurrent of frustration students, parents, educators, and the general public feel about the state of school safety in their communities. But, we have power—the power to be informed, to drive discussions, and to take action to improve the safety of our students every day.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2018 edition of Education Week as School Safety Belongs to All of Us

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