The Continuum of School Security
March 01, 2023
Appears in March 2023: School Administrator.
Three broad options, each with their upsides and disadvantages, for ensuring a secure environment
Every day, school leaders in the 130,000 schools across the U.S. are entrusted with providing a safe learning environment for more than 50 million students. On the heels of one of the worst years on record for school-based violence, this is no easy feat. The many paradoxes and conflicting opinions we face in education further muddy the waters, making it hard to cut through the noise when it comes to safety.
Two good reasons exist to do something: It makes us safer, and it makes us feel safer. We know children can only learn and thrive when they feel safe. Only about half of students say they generally feel safe at school, according to the nonprofit survey group YouthTruth, and the number of parents who fear for their child’s safety at school has grown significantly in recent years — from roughly 24 percent in 2017 to 44 percent in 2022.
Small Actions by Staff that Create Safer Environments
Earlier this year, a Washington, D.C., elementary school seeking to create a more welcoming environment for visitors put in place a new process for managing campus visitors. Rather than simply asking visitors to sign in, the front office team offered a warm greeting and struck up a conversation with each individual signing in.
This was a seemingly small change — a brief exchange of words that previously hadn’t been there. But in having these short conversations, the team noticed they were able to pick up new information that previously had slipped by during their simpler sign-in process.
So when a noncustodial parent came to school one day attempting to pick up a student, the office staff was able to prevent the situation quickly and avoid potentially dangerous consequences.
Every day, schools make seemingly simple decisions that impact safety and security — both positively and negatively. Sometimes we recognize their potential impact, and sometimes we don’t see them as a safety issue at all.
In 15 years of working with schools as a safety consultant, I have learned that nearly every decision a school makes has potential to become a safety issue, and each member of the school community — from front-office staff and dedicated security teams to our leaders and students — has an important role to play in contributing to our safety.
Nurses make referrals for students struggling with mental health. Teachers notice inconsistencies in behavior that could signal something bigger. Students report other students engaging in unsafe behavior. Crossing guards protect students while they transition off school property. Parents see and flag behavioral changes at home. Even neighbors around the school can signal unusual activity and concerning or dangerous behavior near school.
I often describe school safety as being like a spider web. The systems the school creates are the center of the web and establish its structure and shape. From there, each individual member of the school community adds threads to create a broad, strong, interwoven network.
Maintaining the web requires intentional focus and commitment. By aligning the systems and people who play a role in school safety and ensuring they have the proper training and systems to support and empower them, we can help create a stronger web and realize our goals of safer, more secure and more connected school communities.
— Chris Joffe