School officials today are under increased scrutiny when it comes to school safety. As tragic mass shootings continue to be all-too-common, school superintendents must prepare for and prevent the unthinkable.
Many stakeholders rightfully expect that the schools in their communities are safe and that students, teachers, and staff are protected. School employees, students, elected officials, and the general public all understand the need for safety and are looking to school superintendents to take the lead.
Before diving into solutions and policies, it’s important that as a school superintendent, you follow a clearly identified process for creating a school safety plan. From the sequence of steps required to the partners involved in its creation, the school safety plan provides a clear roadmap for protecting your schools and providing a detailed, step-by-step guide that can be shared with all interested parties.
In this eGuide, we’ll take you through the reasons for creating a plan, the components, and the process.
Beyond the obvious need to provide preventative measures to combat school threats, the plan is necessary for many reasons including the correlation of safety with academic success, state and federal requirements and guidance. In addition, many professional education-related agencies have weighed in on the need and importance.
Perceptions of Safety Influence Academic Performance and Attendance
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that 5.6 percent of high schoolers didn’t go to school because they did not feel safe. Bullying, often a precursor to violent acts, is one of the most-cited safety issues, with the CDC showing that 45 percent of middle school students and 20.2 percent of high school students reported being bullied.
Learning outcomes are directly correlated to school safety. A 2016 report showed that third-graders who reported being victimized scored lower in mathematics, reading and science. Furthermore, a longitudinal study by the Research Alliance for New York City Schools found that increases in school safety were closely correlated with improved academic performance.
State-Level Mandates Increasing
In early 2019, the Education Commission of the States released a comprehensive report on state mandates and requirements regarding school safety. The study assessed school safety, including whether the following five components are required by law or regulation, who is responsible for completing them, if law enforcement is involved and the frequency at which they are reviewed and updated:
Using those guidelines, the report had several important findings, including:
Federal Commission Makes Overarching School Safety Recommendations
In 2018, the Federal Commission on School Safety released its final report. The commission focused on three broad categories:
Here are some of the most salient areas of the commission’s report regarding the creation of your school safety plan:
The report notes that there are many state and federal resources available to help with school safety planning. Among the notable resources are:
A guide published by the Secret Service on violence prevention planning using a threat assessment model. The guide includes a step-by-step model that includes:
A Department of Homeland Security guide to preventing and protecting against gun violence that takes a four-pronged approach to prevention and protection:
The Safe Schools / Healthy Students (SS/HS) Framework that fosters the development of safe and healthy learning spaces by focusing on mental health promotion and violence prevention. It includes detailed information on how to develop, implement, sustain and expand on a plan using the framework.
Professional organizations urging change
National organizations covering school counselors, psychologists, social workers, school resource officers and principals issued a joint statement recently recommending a framework for school safety. They stress that school safety, climate and learning are interrelated and should be addressed together in order to deliver a comprehensive school safety plan.
The consortium encourages the following best practices to address the three areas simultaneously:
Mandates, resources, and recommendations from the professional organizations, state and federal jurisdictions, and researchers show that school safety is of primary importance.
There are many components, stakeholders and approaches to a school safety plan. While there is no right way to build a plan, it’s important to have the right framework and context when deciding on the right approach for your school district.
Establishing Guiding Principles
The U.S. Department of Education has created the Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) Technical Assistance Center to assist school systems with strategy and execution of safety plans. The center offers webinars, online courses and a community of practice to assist school leaders.
REMS suggests a set of six principles to frame the planning. Here’s a closer look.
1. Support from leadership
The commitment to creating a school safety plan is significant. There are many resources necessary – personnel, budget and time. This means providing staff involved with the projects the flexibility and bandwidth to participate fully.
Senior leadership needs to be fully supportive, with a clear understanding of the importance, scope and commitments required to develop and sustain a plan. Leadership needs to be visible and vocal in their support.
Senior leadership also can provide valuable insights, perspective and contributions to the plan itself. For example, senior officials, whether school employees or elected officials, can provide context about district-wide objectives and goals, union contracts, state and local laws and regulations, and legal exposure.
Involving them at the right level and providing regular communication and updates is an important part of the leader’s project management. Leaders who take an active role are going to demonstrate their commitment to and the importance of the work. They can also play a role in communicating broadly to key constituents about the plan’s objectives, components and needs.
2. Continuous assessments at the school level
A cookie-cutter approach is a wrong approach. Each school structure, grounds and location are unique. That’s why a customized, school-specific approach is critical.
The best school safety plans include a process for the continuous assessment, review and revision of each schools’ needs and solutions. The number of possible assessments available is extensive and could include risk, culture and climate, behavioral threats and capacity evaluations. Your team is going to need access to blueprints, floor plans, traffic flows, student behavioral patterns, existing solutions and community landscape, demographics and crime rates to create each school plan.
3. Consideration of broad scope of threats and potential incidents
You should use an all-hazards approach that identifies the potential threats, their likelihood and possible solutions. Too often, the emphasis is on the most common threats, such as fires or weather incidents, and active shooter situations.
That’s too narrow an approach. Instead, a broad spectrum of threats should be considered, including natural disasters, technological hazards (cyber attacks, hazardous materials or infrastructure failures), biological hazards (water contamination, toxic materials or contaminated food) and adversarial hazards (active shooter, missing student or demonstration).
In Keeping Students Safe Every Day, authors Amanda and Amy Klinger argue that emergency operations plans need to be careful not to fall victim to “normalcy bias,” by focusing only on the more likely safety threats both in general and in the moment. Sadly, safety incidents can happen anywhere, to any type of school and in any community. That means considering types of threats that previously may have seemed unlikely, such as mail handling and suspicious packages.
4. Inclusive planning that considers the entire school community
Planning teams need to recognize the needs of all the stakeholders in a school and its community, including:
Consider, for example, those who cannot physically complete a command to duck for cover or may not see or hear cues to evacuate a space. Emergency preparedness means being sensitive and responsive to the varied demands and needs of those within a school community.
For planners, this may mean becoming aware of confidential information about students and others, or not being allowed to access this information. Privacy rights need to be protected during the planning process.
5. Consideration of all settings and times
School safety doesn’t just apply to classroom time. Your safety plan needs to incorporate all aspects of the school day: arrival and departure, recess, field trips, after-school activities and special events.
6. A collaborative process
School safety plans should not be mandates. Instead, they should be inclusive and collaborative. Listening to and valuing multiple perspectives is a way to build buy-in and spread messages among unique community groups.
When building your school safety plan, consider the following best-practice principles:
The Planning and Funding Processes
With a clear understanding of the needs, priorities and principles of your planning process, it’s time to start building the plan. Here are five key phases.
1. Build the team
Your planning team should include district leadership including curriculum, planning, principals and other officials. In addition, the following should be considered for the team:
During this phase, you want to form a common framework for addressing the work, define roles, assign responsibilities, and set a regular meeting schedule.
2. Identify threats and hazards at the school level
As discussed above, a wide-spectrum approach to threat identification is a prudent approach. In-person site assessments are completed and complemented by assessments of culture, climate and capacity. After these risks have been identified, they need to be prioritized.
3. Determine goals and identify courses of action
This is an important narrative step. It’s where the plan begins to take clearer shape. For each identified and prioritized threat, the plan should include:
4. Complete the plan
The writing process, reviews, edits and discussions are likely to go through multiple iterations. Approval processes are likely to involve presentations, discussions and sessions with key stakeholders and decision-makers.
Once approved, there is the important task of sharing the plan broadly with various constituencies. It’s important in this phase to have relevant committee members present if possible. For example, parents and law enforcement officials who served on the planning team should be a part of presentations to parents.
5. Implement the plan
Implementation is actually the beginning, not the end, of a process. Implementation involves education, training, purchasing and installation of new technology and exercises or drills. At each step, there should be evaluation, review and revision as needed.