Guest Column

Six Misperceptions About Safety in Your Schools

by JAMES MONK AND GARY J. STEBBINS

Superintendents and law enforcement personnel spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about making elementary and secondary schools safer and more secure learning places.

It is enough for school leaders to be concerned about maximizing student learning and helping young people cope with growing up in our fast-paced society, let alone having to be concerned about personal safety every day, too.

In our collective decades of experience as building principals, a superintendent and university professor, the two of us have come to know that simple solutions do not exist. Yet some common myths cloud our vision of a safe school environment, sometimes obscuring the realities that can guide us toward positive measures.

•  Misperception 1: Hiring of more security personnel will make our building safer.
Reality: No strength exists in numbers when it comes to hiring more people to monitor school property. Using prisons as models for safe schools with many corrections officers does not necessarily result in safety. Anyone hired in this role must be properly trained before a school system will see any benefit. Placing more personnel in a building will not solve most problems and could even have the reverse effect. 

•  Misperception 2: If we buy more surveillance cameras, we will improve student behavior and discourage wrongdoing.
Reality: Like many forms of technology, video surveillance has its friends and foes. The acquisition of surveillance cameras is secondary to the type of cameras purchased and their strategic placement and monitoring throughout schools. The newer and more affordable cameras available today have both the capacity and the capability to greatly enhance the effectiveness of school security personnel.

In addition, surveillance documentation can be used as key evidence in discipline cases. Cameras with the capability to pan large areas as well as detect any motion in an isolated area can provide 24/7 surveillance of trouble spots. 

•  Misperception 3: Some schools are so big and poorly designed that it is impossible to maintain order.
Reality: It is true many large older school buildings leave much to be desired in the way of architectural conduciveness contributing to learning and management.
However, even the worst school buildings can be managed and safely maintained in spite of their limitations. It simply takes some careful analysis and planning to convert these behemoths into secure learning institutions. Charting where violent incidents take place is a necessary first step. Again, the proper placement of personnel, cameras and classrooms can create comfortable and safe settings for students and staff. 

•  Misperception 4: The administration is in charge of discipline and all teachers need to do is teach.
Reality: Unfortunately, this mindset is far too often the prevailing attitude at many of the schools we have visited. In part, it is a holdover of the “close my door and teach” isolationist attitude that should be eradicated from schools.

Such antiquated thinking is not part of progressive and pro-active professional learning communities. Once students sense that teachers care little about any wrongdoing outside of their immediate supervision, watch out! We have found that students of all ages need the clear message that all adults in the school are on the same page in expecting acceptable and respectful behavior at all times. Anything less sends mixed messages of what’s acceptable.

Teachers have a large stake in helping to maintain order. After all, if the students are respectful and focused on their learning, then teachers can instruct and not be distracted by disruptive students and endless disciplinary paperwork.

The image of a principal like Joe Clark in the movie “Lean on Me” wielding a bat in the hallways of an out-of-control high school still strikes a familiar chord in many circles. Overcoming such nostalgia is a good first step.

We have seen schools with a shared governance and discipline philosophy based upon mutual respect. A key component is the involvement of students in school governance. Students know what is going on and, if given respect and trust, students add greatly to maintaining a positive climate.

•  Misperception 5: School safety plans assure a safer and more secure working and learning environment.
tReality: In fact, schools and school districts that take a pro-active approach to safety are safer and more secure than those that do not. Although this may seem like a blinding flash of the obvious, we have seen in our visits that the typical school safety plan, if there is one at all, is out of date and shelved in binder purgatory.

On the other hand, we have found that good planning, along with documentation, are the keys to maintaining safety before, during and after all levels of incidents.

•  Misperception 6: Installing a rapid school-to-home communication and notification system will result in a safer school.
Reality: Rapid communication is only part of the solution. A number of sophisticated systems have been developed that can notify literally thousands of contacts in a matter of a few minutes. As with other forms of technology implementation, most districts failed to use a staff development component with their acquisition of these powerful new systems of communication.

Companies have developed training systems to assist schools with this process. This is new ground for schools and an area where professional assistance is essential.

James Monk is a school security consultant in Brewster, N.Y. E-mail: JamesMonk318@comcast.net. Gary Stebbins is an assistant professor of educational leadership at San Jose State University.