Answering Parents' Tough Questions

School safety centers receive many inquiries from parents asking how they can evaluate schools for safety. Some of these parents want to evaluate schools prior to buying a home, others are trying to decide between public and private schools in their community, and some are trying to decide between two or more private institutions. Are you prepared to answer hard questions posed by informed parents?


A Basic Outline


A highly visible, confident, involved, approachable and assertive school administrative team is a key element of a safe school. No amount of security technology, law enforcement presence or other measures can overcome the limitations created by weak administrative leadership. If administrators don’t demonstrate commitment and support for their staff and students, safety will be compromised. Indifferent responses, inconsistent discipline and lack of visibility in the school create numerous small problems that lead to big incidents. If I had to use one word to describe up the best school administrators it would be“omnipresent.”


Communication


In an ideal situation, school administrators also work tirelessly to maintain open lines of communication throughout the school. The most glaring symptom of an unsafe school is an administrative team that expends much effort to conceal school safety incidents and problems, rather than working cooperatively to correct them. If administrators do not communicate openly and honestly with school employees, law enforcement officials, mental health professionals, students and parents, the school is not as safe as it could and should be.


Efforts to educate students and parents and to train staff on safety-related topics should be in place. Of particular importance is an environment where students, parents and employees can easily report potentially dangerous conditions or situations. If students do not know how they can report such situations, there is work to do.


A safe and orderly school is operated with thoughtfully established and clearly communicated guidelines. Everyone in the building — students, administrators, teachers, school employees and visitors — receives reasonable notification of what is expected and acceptable behavior while on school property. While the concept,“ignorance of the law is no defense in court” may be technically correct, it makes better sense to be sure that people know what is expected of them and what will happen when people on school property step out of line.


Strategies


Another important aspect is the very approach taken to foster safety. An effective strategy must be grounded in a philosophy that the various stakeholders have been provided a seat at the school safety table. The lead school administrator should be able to produce a written prevention plan and a written emergency operation plan upon request. Both plans should have been developed with the assistance of students, parents, a representative from every local public safety agency, emergency management, mental health providers and others who have an interest in school safety. In addition, a tactical site survey should be completed each year to identify potential safety hazards.


I caution parents to be very concerned if all their school administrator can provide is a flip chart that outlines basic steps to take in a crisis. A school administrator who has nothing more available is far more likely to face a crisis, and is doomed to failure in a major crisis situation.


Access Control


A stranger should not be able simply to walk onto the campus and roam the building. Any school can be open and inviting and still be reasonably secure. Every school should have a strategy to screen students and visitors for weapons. This is an area that is seriously lacking in many schools. Nationally, only a tiny percentage of guns, knives and other weapons that are brought to school are recovered. The weapons screening program should be tailored to fit the threat level at the school. While entry point metal detection is not a viable option for many schools, there are a number of other ways to detect weapons and deter people from bringing them on school property. For an overview of weapons screening strategies, school officials can obtain a free training video that includes a three-minute segment on how school staff members can spot the specific indicators that a person may be carrying a gun. To obtain the video Safe Schools, Prevention, Planning, and Response, fax a request on official letterhead to Garrett Electronics at 972-494-1881. (The tape also contains information on planning for and responding to school crisis situations.)


Law Enforcement Partnership


No school should be without a strong law enforcement partnership. The approach should be tailored to fit the needs of the school, and designed in a manner that will maximize the available law enforcement resources. No combination of other components can replace the valuable benefits of an effective school/law enforcement partnership.


When viewed in light of a comprehensive approach, how will you answer tough questions posed by informed parents? More importantly, how safe is your school? If any critical elements are missing, it might be time for some modifications.



Michael Dorn is a school safety specialist with the Georgia Emergency Management Agency. He is also the former Chief of Police for the Bibb County (Ga.) Public School System, which is widely used as an international model for school safety.


About the Author

Michael Dorn serves as the executive director for Safe Havens International, Inc., an IRS-approved, nonprofit safety center. He has authored and co-authored more than 20 books on campus safety. He can be reached through the Safe Havens website at www.safehavensinternational.org.

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