Guest blog by Dr. Sonayia Shepherd
You have probably heard the term “school safety” numerous times. Educators, practitioners, parents, and media use the term often, but what does it really mean? How do you know if a school is really safe? First, it is important to understand that creating a safe learning environment is an ongoing process. There is no magical formula. The entire school community must incorporate safety practices into daily routines. Basically, “school safety” consists of a variety of programs and services that are designed to contribute to the maintenance and establishment of safe and positive learning environments. Here are a few specific school safety topics and definitions as examples:
- School Climate and Culture
The terms school culture and school climate describe the environment that affects the behavior of teachers and students. School culture is the shared beliefs and attitudes that characterize the district-wide organization and establish boundaries for its constituent units. School climate characterizes the organization at the school building and classroom level. It refers to the “feel” of a school and can vary from school to school within the same district. While an individual school can develop a climate independently of the larger organization, changes in school culture at the district level can positively or adversely affect school climate at the building level.
- Target Hardening
Target Hardening is an approach to making the school a less attractive target for anyone with “bad intent.” School officials should work with community partners to assess systems such as school building access, visitor policies and sign in procedures, deliveries, transportation security, vehicular access & parking, interior and exterior building evaluation, etc.
- Crisis and Emergency Management Planning
Crisis Management is the management and coordination of the school’s responses to an incident that threatens to harm, or has harmed, the organization’s people, structures, ability to operate, valuables and/or reputation. It takes into account planning and automatic incident response, but must also dynamically deal with situations as they unfold, often in unpredictable ways.
Defining school safety terminology can be helpful to help make sure people are on the same page when working to achieve enhanced school safety, security and emergency preparedness.
Dr. Sonayia Shepherd (Sony) is the Chief Operating Officer of Safe Havens International. The author of 16 books on school safety and emergency management, Sony’s work has taken her to many countries including Switzerland, Thailand, Indonesia, Haiti, Guatemala, Angola, South Africa and India.
A popular keynote speaker, Dr. Shepherd has presented at numerous state, national and international professional conferences and many individual school districts across the nation. Sony welcomes reader feedback and questions at email@example.com
One of the things that is very striking when working with a wide variety of schools and school districts in different communities is the variation between the levels of connectivity between students, staff, parents and individual schools and districts. While school staff typically work diligently to achieve a high degree of connectivity and positive relationships between people, there are often wide variances between how effectively this is done. Though there are clearly differences in community factors that can create significant and widely varying challenges for school officials, we have seen some truly impressive examples of positive school climate and connectivity in schools that face incredible challenges.
Fortunately, there are many ways to foster a positive school climate with a high degree of connectivity. We are also fortunate that there are many excellent free resources to help school officials in this area. One commonality that can often be observed when this type of environment has been achieved is a sense of teamwork. When teachers, support staff as well as the members of the administrative team are all on the same page and working in the same direction, a healthy school climate and culture is more likely to result.
Though creating this type of climate in a school is easier said than done, it is possible and worthwhile to do so.
We’re learning more about the woman accused of abducting a child from a Milwaukee school.
The questions are swirling around Starms Early Childhood Center. TODAY’S TMJ4 has identified the name of the suspect and TODAY’S TMJ4 is beginning to learn more about how she made her move.
As four-year-old Charity recovers from an abduction, her mom, Paula, is amazed at how this could have happened.
Witnesses saw 33-year-old Lisa Isaac walk into school and take her baby girl, while mom waited in an office just feet away. “I waited for her a while and she never came, and the teacher came down and said that she had left with a lady with a curly wig, and said I told her to pick her up,” said Paula.
Milwaukee Public Schools Communications Director Roseanne St. Aubin told TODAY’S TMJ4 extra security staff has been added to the center. She maintains Isaac snuck into school with daycare van drivers and snatched the girl.
“That little girl was passing close to that group of people, and the woman took her,” said Roseann St. Aubin.
Staffers at the Evans Academy of Excellence, a nearby daycare, told TODAY’S TMJ4 the woman came in twice, trying to take a child home.
I used to decline requests to deliver my presentation – Weakfish – Bullying Through the Eyes of a Child for student groups. I was concerned about how useful the presentation would be for students, since it was originally intended for adults. I had a client who was insistent that I deliver the presentation for several different schools in Jasper, Indiana some years ago that forever changed my mind on this. A student wrote a thank you letter to me after my visit, and in the letter he indicated that he had been contemplating suicide and had decided not to kill himself after hearing the presentation.
I still advise schools that they must implement a structured approach to bullying prevention to have a significant and lasting impact on bullying. I recommend that school districts adopt evidence-based approaches to bullying prevention, combined with strategies to improve student supervision and even broader approaches to improve school culture and climate. And there is never a bad time to re-evaluate the effectiveness of student supervision.
Since that presentation in Jasper, I have delivered many of these presentations at schools around the nation and have found every one of them to be a powerful, inspiring and meaningful experience. I have met so many great students, parents and educators during these events and I find them to be a great motivator to keep doing what we’re doing here at Safe Havens.
I was privileged to have the opportunity to keynote the Michigan State Police Homeland Security Conference a few years ago. The response to my session was favorable and they had to bring in an additional 200 seats to accommodate a surge in attendance for a breakout session on advanced school emergency preparedness concepts following the keynote. This high level of interest in the topic speaks volumes about the dedication, care and concern for student safety by Michigan educators and public safety officials.
The MSP decided to do three one day conferences in different cities around the state this week and I felt honored to be allowed to keynote these sessions as well. Repeat conferences were held at the Macomb intermediate School District, the Michigan State Police Academy and at Western Michigan State University to make it easier for educators and public safety officials to attend in tight budget times.
The MSP serve not only as the lead state law enforcement agency but also function as the state’s emergency management agency as well. The agency works diligently to provide emergency management training and support to Michigan schools and is currently using a FEMA grant to provide STEP training at no cost to Michigan students. This program was developed through the Rhode Island Emergency Management Agency and FEMA. When I keynoted the Rhode Island state school safety conference earlier this year, educators and public safety officials literally raved about the STEP program which is designed to teach students how to prepare for and survive crisis situations. I have no doubt that the same outcomes will occur in Michigan as well.
I was particularly pleased this week to have had such good attendance and participation from educators who far outnumbered public safety officials in the sessions. Often, conferences on school emergency preparedness held in the early Fall and late Spring are not convenient for educators to attend. We had a diverse group of educators, law enforcement officers, fire service, emergency medical service and emergency management personnel in attendance as well as a number of school safety consultants who wanted to learn more about evidence-based emergency preparedness measures.
I was also pleasantly surprised to see how eager participants were to participate in interactive activities. In fact, I gave out more than forty Safe Havens books and training DVDs to attendees. I typically give out books and DVDs to people who contribute with brilliant comments and probing questions during the day. I thought I was well prepared with so many door prizes, but wish my luggage space would have accommodated another thirty or so books as I could have easily given them out due to the high level of insightful participation by attendees.
I was deeply touched by the personal conversations I had with an emergency manager who related how he was badly bullied. I equally touched by a conversation with a police chief who served in the United States Navy in Vietnam and survived a gunshot wound from a shotgun as a police officer. I spoke to several other Vietnam vets about their valuable service to our country, the friends they lost and how they now remain in service to their country as educators and public safety officials. A Michigan State Police Sergeant told me how she had found the courage to stand up to a teacher who was verbally abusing a student who was gay when she was in high school years ago. To me, this is a different kind of valor and it should not surprise us that she now puts her life on the line to protect others when she was willing to accept risk to protect another student as a teenager. These fine and brave men and women epitomize everything that we respect about American heroes.
Most of our staff at Safe Havens have been blessed with the opportunity to travel to other countries in our work. The context we observe in Mexico, Bolivia, South Africa, Vietnam, the Congo, Rwanda, Honduras, Guatemala and other far-away places we have visited is hard to describe at times. Wherever we go, we meet truly impressive people who care deeply about children and youth.
I have been blessed to meet many true American heroes like these outstanding men and women in Michigan who have dedicated their lives to making the world a safer place for their fellow citizens. This week has reminded me once again that we are truly blessed to have so many heroes walking among us who will accept nothing less than the very best for our children.
I was delighted to receive this awesome print depicting Michigan State Troopers following my presentation at the Michigan State Police Academy. Sergeant Michelle Robinson presented it to me after I had made a comment about how cool the photo was in the framed display at the academy. The officers are equipped with a bolt action rifle, a Thompson Submachine Gun, a Winchester model 1897 police riot shotgun and a tear gas gun. As I told attendees, these guys probably had no idea just how cool they would look decades after they posed for this photograph. The Michigan State Police recently celebrated their 95th anniversary and all MSP personnel should be proud of the institution these men represent.
As anyone who has conducted even a moderate review of the literature knows, bullying has a tremendous impact on our students and the ability of schools to teach. The pain, suffering, anguish and other negative effects of school bullying not only have a significant effect on school safety, but on school climate, culture and academic achievement as well.
We know that many school children are truant from school each day, we have seen far too many instances of students who commit suicide at and away from school due to bullying and we have many examples of students who drop out of school due to bullying. When combined with the rare instances where victims of severe bullying take hostages at school or carry out school shootings, these negative and sometimes dire situations add up to a significant school safety issue.
Whether operating from a standpoint of school crisis prevention or from the standpoint of enhancing academic achievement it makes sense to evaluate the frequency and severity of bullying in any school and then to address the determined risk level appropriately. Schools are often limited in fiscal resources to address bullying, emergency preparedness and other school safety issues. Fortunately, there are many excellent free resources for American schools.
One example of this in the area of bullying prevention are the resources available from the United States Department of Education on bullying, including the Stop Bullying Now Campaign available to schools at no cost from the United States Government. This program has received excellent reviews from a number of experts in the field of bullying prevention and is worth consideration for schools that lack funds to purchase evidence based bullying prevention programs such as the Olweus Bullying Prevention Program. Effective bullying prevention strategies are an excellent way to improve school safety, school climate, school culture and to enhance student achievement.
There was a major disturbance at a New York City public high school recently that shows just how out of control students can become. Videos taken during the incident have been posted on the web and viewed by thousands of people.
The situation occurred at Murry Bergtram High School and graphic video of the disturbance demonstrate a high level of chaos. Viewing these video clips remind me of an even more violent student disturbance at Ballard Hudson Middle school when I was a student there. In that instance, local law enforcement officers wearing riot gear broke up the melee with riot batons after a school district police officer was severely beaten.
Situations of group student violence this severe are fortunately relatively rare in most parts of the country. These situations demonstrate how important school climate and culture are and how important it is for school security and law enforcement officials to establish solid rapport with the students they serve. This can be accomplished in any school, including schools serving high-risk student populations.
The Twin Cities Press reported that a 17-year-old student attacked an 18-year veteran teacher and injured him badly enough to require transport to the hospital by ambulance. The teacher reportedly was cursed severely and then savagely attacked after instructing the student to remove headphones as required by school policy. Though not as horrific as an active shooter situation in a school there is an important aspect of this type of event. Many educators can relate something similar in a school they have taught or worked in if they have been in the field for more than ten years. Though fortunately, most of these incidents do not escalate quite to the level of this incident, verbal and physical attacks on school employees are disturbingly common in relation to many other types of school safety and security incidents.
While school shootings often dominate the media coverage for school safety topics, there has actually been a well-documented reduction in the per capita homicide rate on school property in the United States. There are a number of reasons this may be the case including:
• Improved emergency medical care
• The development of the multidisciplinary threat assessment approach for schools
• Improved school security and access control practices
• An increased awareness among staff, students and parents about the dangers of school violence and the need to take school safety more seriously
• Improvements in policies relating to weapons on campus, violent behaviors and triggering behaviors such as fights
• The addition of thousands of school law enforcement officers in public and non public schools that previously did not have this valuable and effective resource
• Increased consistency in application of consequences for serious violations that can precede weapons use by students
• Improvements in school design
• Improvements in school climate
• Efforts to reduce bullying
• A variety of other techniques
While we still have much room for improvement, tremendous strides have been made and many gains achieved in our efforts to reduce weapons violence in our schools. At the same time, educators in many schools and districts often report a significant increase in lower level forms of aggression by students, parents and visitors. Though not a valid research approach, informal polling via a show of hands during keynote and training sessions for more than 50,000 attendees at my sessions in the past few years has revealed that a lot of hands go up when I ask people who have been in the field of education for more than ten years to raise their hands if they perceive significant increases in these types of behaviors. When I contrast the number of people in the room with those who keep their hands up when I ask about the perception that this type of behavior has increased, the overwhelming majority of attendees indicate that they do see a worsening in this area.
Though these types of events do not dominate the national news discussion relating to school safety and school performance, they have a very significant impact on both. I have met many former educators who have decided to change fields due to these types of incidents. Schools where reports of physical and verbal aggression are a regular type of event to any degree should work diligently to address this aspect of school safety. We have seen a number of schools successfully address lower level aggression through a comprehensive and thoughtful approach combining evidence based strategies with other techniques that are not as deeply rooted in solid research but have shown improvement nonetheless.
If lower level aggression is a regular problem in your schools, make it a priority to address this corrosive problem head on to reduce risk, reduce distraction in the classrooms, enhance the ability of children to learn and teachers to teach while making all safer.