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
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.
Photo by Rachel Wilson – Safe Havens International Video ©2011
Careful thought and appropriate training should address the issue of which campus employees should make calls to 911 when an emergency occurs. There should be no assumptions on the part of school administrators or rank and file employees as to the most effective way to handle 911 calls for life and death assistance. It is not uncommon for school employees to lack formal guidance on when they should call 911 during a life and death emergency situation. The wide variety of school designs and the ways they are operated at different times of the day make it impossible to have an effective standardized national approach to this seemingly simple issue.
Normally, it is best for calls to 911 to be made by school office personnel rather than employees faced with an emergency in other parts of the school. There are several reasons for this:
It is often difficult for staff to perform life-saving actions while they are on the phone with 911 dispatch personnel for several minutes or more.
If a staff member in a remote part of the building calls 911 directly, the office may not find out that there is an emergency for several minutes. This can cause a significant delay in ordering protective actions such as lockdown for the rest of the school’s occupants. This approach can also cause a delay in school crisis team members responding to the incident scene to provide assistance.
School offices are often staffed by multiple personnel who can manage several critical tasks at one time.
At the same time, we recommend that all school staff be specifically trained and empowered to call 911 directly if doing so will reduce the risk to students and/or staff. For example, if a staff member is unable to contact the office or there is no one in that office at the time of day the incident occurs.
Regardless of the specific situations in each school, it can be extremely important that school and area public safety officials have effective discussions on this topic. These discussions should yield workable approaches that can and should be incorporated into staff development efforts. These efforts should be geared to achieving the end result that congruent understanding between the rank and file employees, to line supervisors and middle managers, as well as among department heads and the top leadership in the organization is achieved.
A good litmus test is that if someone posed a series of several life and death scenarios to every employee in the organization, the majority of responses as to whom they would call for emergency assistance should be consistent. If experience indicates that this level of consistency would not surface, this might be a good opportunity for improvement.
Sometimes the simple things in life are among the most important. How the initial call for emergency assistance is made can be a life or death aspect of even fairly routine emergency situations. Taking the time to look at how critical information will flow in the first critical minutes of an emergency may be just as important as the technology available to communicate during crisis situations. Though it is often relatively inexpensive in terms of cost and time to address the issue of who calls 911, the failure to do so can be rather costly.
Note: This blog has been posted for Michael Dorn while he is in a rural region of Mexico with no internet or phone service. He may be delayed in responding to e-mails relating to this blog.
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.
One thing we notice regularly in our school safety, security, climate, culture and emergency preparedness assessment work are opportunities to improve the level of empowerment of school employees to improve school safety. From preventive actions to life and death decision making, we regularly see significant gaps that relate to the empowerment of school employees to protect themselves and others.
We also often see this in school safety litigation work, unfortunately, this is often after someone has been seriously injured or killed and school safety related lawsuits have been filed. I recall a risk management instructor relating a case from Utah where a school district settled a case for millions of dollars after a student died from a medical emergency. In this truly extreme case, the district’s superintendent had put a policy in place that no one in the district could call 911 without his permission. This policy had apparently been implemented because the superintendent had been embarrassed when he could not respond to a reporter who asked him why police had been called to a school because he was not yet aware of the situation. When a student stopped breathing, there was an extended delay in calling for an ambulance while the superintendent was located.
While this is an extreme example, it is far from the most deadly. There have been other instances where the response by public safety officials was delayed while school employees tried to locate an administrator to make a life and death decision.
These deadly delays can be made less likely through proper planning, structure, training and most of all by clear empowerment of school staff that they can summon life-saving assistance or take action to otherwise save when it is appropriate.