Systems Thinking

From Random Acts to a System of Safety and Security

by Jane Hammond

Millions of parents send their precious children to school daily with the hope they will return home safely. We live in a world where we are searching for safety and security in very trying and challenging times. There is tremendous pressure on school district staff members to do the right things by taking the correct actions to establish a safe and secure environment.

This pressure often results in schools and school districts pursuing a variety of individually positive actions, but too often it does not result in a systemic approach that leaves the staff, students and community feeling safe.

Three Factors
Three major components define a comprehensive plan for establishing a system of safe and secure schools: Developing a comprehensive definition of what safety and security means in your community; having the central-office departments working as a system rather than in silos, and balancing site and central decision making and support.

  • A community definition of safety and security.

When we developed the definition in Jefferson County, Colo., eight years ago, we involved a wide variety of community members including teachers, administrators, board members, parents (including some of the parents of students who were murdered at Columbine High School), students, representatives of county agencies and experts in safety and security such as law enforcement, first responders and the Colorado Organization for Victim Assistance.

It took time to clearly define what safety meant for us, including prevention, intervention and crisis response. What I have learned in working with school districts across the country is that there is no one right definition. It must fit the context of the community being served. For example, we decided that to create an environment where parents felt safe in sending their children to school and students felt safe enough to learn that our community did not want to have metal detectors in the schools. But in some communities, metal detectors are required for the community and students to feel safe.

  • The district as a system.

Too often various offices and departments in school districts individually decide what to do and take action, not checking or coordinating with other parts of the organization. For example, the facilities construction department designs and constructs the facilities, the district safety office secures the facilities, and the curriculum and instruction department provides prevention programs such as anti-bullying.

The senior leadership team must begin with the community definition of safety and security and identify how the various departments operate as a whole, connecting their work to the work of the rest of the system with clearly defined roles and responsibilities. During the recent AASA Safe and Secure Schools Conference the following examples were identified describing ways the school districts could have worked in a more systemic way:

  • The curriculum and instruction and security departments working together to make sure the skills and terminology taught to the students in the anti-bullying program are known, understood and appropriately used by the campus security and school resource officers.
  • The facilities construction department getting input from the security department to ensure, where possible, the facilities are constructed in ways that are more easily secured.
  • The security department soliciting input from principals to ensure that the decisions made in that department can be realistically implemented at the school building level.

 

  • Site and central decision making and support.

Again, it is important to begin with the community definition of safety and security and identify the balance between central and site decision making and support (see table below).

 

Central OfficeSite Administration
Identify highly effective prevention programsSelect the prevention programs that best fit the school from the centrally identified ones
Identify the guidelines for school safety committee(s) and the minimum required stakeholder involvementDetermine the school’s leadership safety committee structures that involve the right people for the individual school and meet the centrally identified guidelines
Provide training for leaders in the school safety committees that includes the needed informationSelect the key committee members to attend the district training programs
Establish guidelines for required school safety plansDevelop a school safety plan that meets the district guidelines and the needs of the school
Identify the required school safety drillsPrepare for and conduct the required safety and security drills

Just as with the definition itself, no single correct balance of central and site decision making and support exists. What is finally decided must fit the context of the individual school district.

A Best Effort
To move from random acts of safety to a system of safe and secure schools, the three components of a community definition of safety and security, the central-office departments working as a system and a balance of site and central decision making and support must be aligned to ensure the strength found in a systemic approach to safety and security.

The world is too dangerous and our kids are too important to do anything but our best.

Jane Hammond, former superintendent in Jefferson County, Colo., is director of Results Based Systems in Marysville, Wash. E-mail: janeslatehammond@aol.com