In the days after the mass school shooting in Parkland, Fla., Principal Andy Jacks huddled with members of his staff at Ashland Elementary School to see how they were processing the event.
Although the Manassas, Va., school was 1,000 miles away, teachers and parents had already carefully reflected on the horrific details.
“They wanted to know that I was listening to them, that I was taking their ideas in, that I was doing something about it,” Jacks said.
Along with his reassurance, the teachers wanted radios for every staff member to make it easier to communicate in times of crisis. Jacks agreed.
Here are some methods principals can utilize to keep schools safe:
• Clearly explain to parents what the schools’ existing safety measures are
• Invite feedback from parents, students and teachers on how to improve safety
• Practice with staff how to respond to unexpected events, not just shootings
Around the country, school leaders had similar discussions with anxious parents and staff to answer questions they’ve had to answer before. How do our classroom doors lock? What kind of drills should our students do? Are we ready?
Fears about student safety that follow mass school shootings can put principals in a difficult position.
Decisions about safety protocols, school police, and equipment are often out of their hands, shaped by mandates set by state legislatures, superintendents’ offices, and school boards.
But it’s principals who are closest to the fear and angst of parents, students, and teachers. They are most often the ones being questioned about how safe their buildings are and if their staff is prepared for the unthinkable.
Some school leaders say their role in those situations is to offer reassurance. Principals can communicate all the ways they work to keep their schools safe, clearly explain how those safety-related decisions are made, and invite feedback from parents and the public.
“Any time there’s an event, there seems to be a surge in concern about safety,” Jacks said. “Parents and teachers both want to make sure that we take it seriously and that we have a sense of urgency in our responses.”
Heightened Public Fear
School safety shouldn’t be reduced to a scramble to buy expensive metal detectors and equipment after a deadly incident somewhere else in the country grabs headlines, many principals said.
Rather, creating a safe environment is best achieved through an ongoing process of carefully refining how staff prepare for unexpected events, they said. And inviting the public—especially parents—into that process helps build their confidence in times of crisis.
School leaders finished the 2017-18 school year in a climate that put their abilities to convey calm to the test. And the public fear of mass violence in schools last spring remains at high levels.
Most schools will never experience a school shooting, and even fewer will experience the kind of large-scale, random rampage that drives the passionate public debates about school safety. But two of those events ruptured the last school year, inspiring new state laws, renewing arguments about gun policy, and sparking a new youth activism movement.
In February, 17 people were killed and 17 others were injured in a shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland. In May, 10 people were killed and 13 others were injured in a shooting at Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas.
Having two attacks that were so large, so close together made school violence seem inevitable to some, though federal data show that, by many indicators, schools have gotten safer over time.
About a third of parents responding to a recent poll conducted by PDK International said they fear for their child’s safety at school. That’s almost triple the 12 percent of parents who said they feared for their children’s school safety when the organization asked the same question in 2013, following the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., that left 26 young students and educators dead.
In this year’s poll, taken during a period that overlapped with the Santa Fe shooting, just 27 percent of respondents said they were “very confident” or “extremely confident” about their school’s ability to deter a gunman.
“It’s so easy to get caught up in the feeling that after a shooting occurs, there has to be something you can do,” said Wesley Weaver, the principal at Licking Valley High School in Newark, Ohio.
“It’s a human tendency to react emotionally, viscerally even,” to events like shootings, which can drive parents in some places to push for a big, visible change in schools, like new metal detectors, he said.
“But one thing that I find reassuring is that there is a deep and growing body of knowledge about school shootings, about school shooters, and there are characteristics that are suggesting better ways to stop these things,” Weaver said.
After shootings like those in Parkland and Santa Fe, school leaders in Licking Valley send email messages to parents, explaining how they have prepared for similar scenarios. After the Sandy Hook shooting, the district installed shatter-resistant film on school windows to make it more difficult for a would-be assailant to enter the building and installed panic alarms in its buildings.
The Parkland shooting happened as students were evacuating the building in response to a fire alarm, creating even more confusion about what was unfolding. Licking Valley has practiced for unpredictable scenarios by holding lockdown drills during passing periods and while students are at lunch, Weaver said.
Sensitive to Parents’ Concerns
In addition to inviting input from parents, Weaver opens a channel for teachers and students. After each drill, he shares a Google doc schoolwide, allowing them to give feedback on things that could have been done differently.
“The district’s investment in safety and security is huge, but it’s in a lot of physical things,” like equipment, Weaver said. “The things that aren’t physical are 100 percent in my control.”
That openness to student input should carry throughout the school, Weaver said. Every time educators in his school have learned that a student had a knife or had plans to harm a peer, they heard about it from another student, he said.
How school leaders handle safety must also be responsive to the needs of their community, principals said.
Many parents of Ashland Elementary School students, for example, work at places like the Pentagon, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the U.S. Secret Service, and other federal agencies. That means many of them are especially mindful of security and risk, and many are trained to protect others on the job, Jacks said.
He remembered a conversation with a parent who carries a gun at work everyday.
“They said they couldn’t live with themselves if something happened to their kid and every day they’re armed to protect other people,” Jacks said.
Jacks carries an attitude of openness in his work as a principal. He posts frequently on Twitter and keeps a blog. And he extends that openness to his efforts to keep his school safe by sharing information in meetings, messages and casual interactions and by “capitalizing on ideas from the community.”
Ashland has an active Watch D.O.G.S. program, through which fathers volunteer in the school and do occasional perimeter checks to ensure that the building is safe.
One parent volunteer, a retired military officer, gave Jacks advice on how to tune the radios teachers would use to communicate during a crisis, and he immediately made a change.
“The more confidence they have in your regular practices, the more confidence they will have in an emergency with you,” Jacks said.
Jacks also works to build confidence in his staff members by preparing multiple people to handle the same responsibilities in a crisis. Sometimes he lets teachers run lockdown drills. That duplication ensures someone will always be prepared, he said.
Preparing for unlikely events like school shootings and complying with state safety mandates that center on gun violence are heavy responsibilities for principals, said Lenore Kingsmore, principal of the Henry Hudson Regional School in Highlands, N.J. Those mandates come on top of juggling accountability and new education policies in their primary work as educators, she said.
“The last five years has made it very difficult to think that I’m an instructional leader and that that’s why I became a principal,” Kingsmore said. “There are just so many things that you have to focus your attention on.”
When Kingsmore took on her role in 2010, she faced requirements to perform and carefully document at least one type of safety drill every month. While some of those requirements have eased, new ones have taken their place. Kingsmore now also serves as the district’s school safety coordinator, a state-mandated position that required her to complete 32 hours of training at the state police academy, she said.
Kingsmore also decided to work with local law enforcement to hold an annual, unannounced drill during the school day to test their shooting response plans. The drill is realistic, including the sounds of bullets firing and older students serving as actors in the scenario.
But schools are more likely to deal with issues like suicide, mental health crises, and self-harm than shootings. Kingsmore, originally trained as a counselor, prepares her school for those events, too. She regularly meets with a team of school support staff that helps students in crisis. She implemented a social-emotional learning program, and she set up peer-mentoring relationships between 12th grade and 7th grade students.
The last school lockdown was spurred not by a gun, but by a student having a mental health crisis. As the student made his way through school hallways, teachers followed up on what they’d practiced, quietly closing doors and covering classroom windows so that he could discretely leave the building to get help out of view of other students.
It was a love of children that drew Kingsmore to become a principal, and her safety work makes the most sense when she sees it as an extension of that love.
“You can’t learn if you’re feeling unsafe,” she said. “It’s a balancing act. You have to love kids and know that’s why you’re doing this.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 17, 2018 edition of Education Week as What Principals Can Do to Keep Schools Safe Amid Shooting Fears