Multidisciplinary Teams Tackle School Safety
March 01, 2023
Appears in March 2023: School Administrator.
A more holistic approach, grown out of the tragedy in Newtown, Conn., that incorporates various staff roles to ensure every unique need is accounted for
Imagine this scenario: The fire alarm sounds in your school. The faint smell of smoke hangs in the hallway. As students begin to evacuate, you step in to help, moving a student with disabilities to a stairwell with her class. Realizing that the stairs cannot accommodate her wheelchair, you’re forced to leave the student there while you rush to get help.
As harrowing as the situation sounds, it had a happy ending thanks to the school’s quick-thinking multidisciplinary safety team, or MDSST, which jumped into action to get the student to safety. But the story didn’t end there. The core team of six staff members, including the student’s parents, gathered to debrief with school leadership, providing a platform for the principal to declare, “Leaving a kid alone or behind is unacceptable. We have a problem. We need a solution.”
With that, the team got to work addressing the issue with local experts while securing proper equipment and training for students and staff to prevent a recurrence.
A Holistic Approach
At Safe and Sound Schools, we have helped schools attend to a wide variety of situations related to children’s safety. We work with and in schools across the country to assess and address safety issues, top to bottom, inside and out.
Years of working with and in schools have taught us that teachers typically follow supervisors’ directives or simply do what they’ve been told in moments of crisis. This is not a criticism. As a former teacher, it is clear to me that today’s teachers are more taxed than ever, overloaded with numerous responsibilities beyond teaching. Policies and procedures to help teachers succeed outside of their expertise can help, but too often a narrow focus can result in unaddressed gaps in student safety.
On the other hand, a team approach can result in improved school safety through a more holistic process. School environments today are too complex — and school safety and security too important — to leave in the hands of a single administrator or school resource officer. A team approach that includes staff with a variety of roles and expertise makes it much more likely that every student and every unique need in a school is accounted for and addressed before, during and after an emergency.
Our Six Pillars
Safe and Sound Schools’ Framework for Comprehensive School Safety Planning organizes multidisciplinary safety teams around six integrated disciplines.
Mental and Behavioral Health. School psychologists, counselors or in some cases school nurses help a team remember that safety isn’t always physical.
Health and Wellness. School nurses, counselors and community-based wellness groups help a team focus on the general well-being side to student safety.
Physical Safety and Security. Security resource officers and security directors bring public safety and security resources and expertise to the table.
Operations and Emergency Management. Alignment of operations among outside partners such as law enforcement, fire officials and other emergency responders with school leaders and safety directors is essential.
School Law, Policy, and Finance. School district leaders, superintendents and administrators develop policies and procedures to ensure accountability and sustainability of efforts.
Culture, Climate and Community. Engaging parents and students fosters transparency, ownership and support for school safety initiatives.
With regular communications and meetings, leaders from these pillars troubleshoot and seek solutions together. Teams also can attend events to learn together, connect with peers and share resources. In essence, the team is a centralized point of ownership for school safety with a broad perspective to address the multifaceted and myriad issues of school safety today.
An Empowered Feeling
So how should schools build and manage multidisciplinary safety teams? Our research-based process begins with a local mindset and then builds upon six essential disciplinary pillars providing a framework for success.
Although this may seem too large an undertaking given limited resources, remember that an iterative, phased-in process can be used by any school to implement a multidisciplinary safety team. We’ve seen it start small and build over time in many schools.
One small school system in Weston, Mass., outside Boston, has steadily carved its own path to improved safety. It all began with a Safe and Sound Schools presentation where one principal’s eyes (in her words) were opened. Feeling empowered, she sought to bring school safety to the forefront for her elementary school and district.
It wasn’t easy at first. She heard all the familiar excuses: “We don’t have to worry about that here.” “We don’t want to scare people.” “We’ve never done that before.” “We don’t have time.”
Undeterred, she persisted until she found a few key partners on staff and was slowly joined by more and more teammates. Ultimately, the superintendent joined the group. Soon the team, initially composed of the principal, a school nurse, the head custodian, an administrative assistant, a special educator, a physical education teacher, a school counselor and a school resource officer, began hosting districtwide training and building school-based teams with Safe and Sound Schools.
Today, the school-based team meets regularly, setting goals and holding each other accountable. The group credits its diverse collective of skills and perspectives with the success they’ve experienced navigating a variety of school safety challenges (including the pandemic) over the years.
Following the roadmap of Safe and Sound Schools’ Framework for Comprehensive School Safety Planning (a simple, multidisciplinary roadmap), the 300-student elementary school has truly embraced a holistic approach to ensuring a safe and supportive school environment, helping to create a district-level team and paving the way for the other three school teams in the small, suburban district.
In our nonprofit organization’s latest annual State of School Safety Report, we found only 68 percent of students said they feel safe at school. While we tend to think about gun violence as the most significant threat today, the data suggest it isn’t the biggest physical threat to children’s safety in school (though clearly, the issue has a significant impact on psychological safety as well as school culture and climate). Setting that bias aside and addressing the physical safety of our kids through a local mindset is the best place to start.
The most significant physical safety risks depend greatly on the geographic location of schools. In Tennessee, extreme wind and flooding regularly affect school safety. In California, wildfires pose a unique danger and, in the Midwest, Tornado Alley brings its singular set of concerns. In urban school districts, neighborhood crime and food insecurity are often leading concerns.
Of course, kids who endure any of these crises also must cope with potential trauma impact. A school’s multidisciplinary safety team can address and support student safety — from physical to psychological — when built and trained with these local realities in mind.
Constructing teams is only the beginning. Value comes from the trust and engagement that flows between team members, and teams with high levels of trust can best take advantage of diverse ideas, lived experiences and expertise. Even small intentional efforts, such as recording and sharing communication preferences within the multidisciplinary safety team, can go a long way. Remember: People will speak out only when they feel safe to do so. Safety comes from trust, so explore team-building experiences to maximize the value of all team members.
One team that understands and embodies this level of trust works together in the 14,000-student Frederick County, Va., district. The district’s multidisciplinary safety team takes advantage of the skills and expertise brought to the table by team members from the sheriff’s department, student services, facilities and school administrators for a truly holistic approach. Representatives from student services and the sheriff’s department keep the team in near constant communication via text, phone calls, e-mails, regular meetings and impromptu huddles to stay abreast of current and emerging issues.
When the pandemic abruptly forced Frederick County to shut down schools, the team shifted seamlessly into supporting student needs by tapping into the resources of the sheriff’s department and their Bright Futures program, a divisionwide network that collects and distributes everything from school supplies to clothing and pantry items for students in need. Officers stocked shelves, distributed care packages and checked in on students, providing much-needed connection and bridging communication between schools and community throughout the shutdown.
Now a couple of years beyond, the team looks back on its ability to shift gears with such ease, crediting the level of trust and intentional communication they’ve established as the secret to their success.
Not everyone is starting from scratch. The Jefferson County School District in Colorado has prioritized school safety with school- and district-level teams for nearly two decades. Having suffered painful tragedies (most notably at Columbine High School in 1999) within and near the district, the 70,000-student school system has invested heavily in supporting school-based teams with multiple district-level teams that attend to behavioral threat assessment and management, security, suicide prevention, emergency reunification and crisis response.
Most recently, the Jefferson County teams have begun to attend to the unique safety needs of special education students through the Especially Safe program developed by our organization. (Details are available at safeandsoundschools.org.)
These distinct but interconnected district-level teams lend support and informational resources and liaise between the schools and local agencies, enabling the school-level teams to focus fully on identifying and addressing immediate needs as they arise.
Recently, the teams mobilized around a substantive threat, reported by the statewide tipline Safe2Tell. Multiple tips related to a potential gun on a Jefferson County campus necessitated a schoolwide lockdown and swift coordination between the district multidisciplinary school safety team, law enforcement and high school administration.
When the specificity of subsequent tips indicated that a student in the school was responsible for the threat, the informational technology staff was engaged to track the IP address of the reports to a student’s phone, allowing for the safe removal of the student from the school and the restoration of safety.
While the student was eventually charged with false reporting of an incident, the school community was overwhelmingly grateful for the coordinated effort led by the district’s multidisciplinary team.
According to Jeff Pierson, executive director for school safety for Jeffco Schools, these district level teams have intervened to support school teams in preventing dozens of planned acts of violence, activated numerous student-family reunifications and conducted an average of nearly 2,000 suicide risk assessments per year since 2015. The teams also evaluate and supervise each school’s emergency plans and drills annually.
Action Begets Action
School safety can be a heavy subject. Keeping students safe means facing some unpleasant realities, and it is easy to feel defeated by the fact that much of what we are working to protect against should not be an issue in the first place.
Yet we’ve seen schools make incredible strides after committing to one first step. We’ve seen momentum created when one small act grows into a force. There’s nothing like a common and urgent goal to pull together the most disparate of personalities and agendas with school safety as the catalyst.
Putting teams together to act toward a safer and more secure learning environment is among the most meaningful work we do. Multidisciplinary safety teams create robust cultural initiatives. Students have a seat at the table. Parents have a voice. The process creates a true sense of community and purpose that many schools haven’t felt in a long time.
Multidisciplinary safety teams can help school administrators become stronger leaders themselves. It’s not uncommon for a team member to come into a multidisciplinary safety team meeting knowing all the answers. Then, working as part of a team, the walls break down and the sparks of collaboration fly.
We’ve also seen multidisciplinary safety teams create the most sustainable communities. Members rely on each other, share information and create plans together. Soon students talk with confidence about school safety. Teachers worry less and teach more. School resource officers walk the halls with purpose because they are team members, engaging with nurses, teachers and students.
Before long, other campaigns emerge — fitness projects, wellness initiatives, anti-bullying campaigns, food pantries. A building culture emerges where children, parents and faculty speak up when something doesn’t look right or when they see a challenge in the school community.
Sound too good to be true? Having worked with schools for 10 years, at Safe and Sound Schools we’ve seen and supported it firsthand. All it takes is a start. A simple step or two, using the unifying mission of school safety as the catalyst for positive change.
Michele Gay is co-founder and executive director of Safe and Sound Schools, Newtown, Conn. @MicheleGay
Safe and Sound Schools
Founded by parents, including Michele Gay, who lost a child in the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, this national nonprofit serves as a center for informational resources and school safety advocacy. The organization provides research-based tools and support for crisis prevention, response and recovery.
The organization’s Safe and Sound Institute runs regional summits, workshops and training sessions with national experts to engage and connect all stakeholders in a school district in the process of improving school safety.
In addition, the institute can schedule a school visit to help with planning in the areas of school-based mental health, emergency management, campus policing, disaster preparedness, physical security and school health.
The website includes free toolkits for school communities to help facilitate conversations and partnerships. Access safeandsoundschools.org.