Thursday, December 20, 2012

School Safety Ideas

From an emergency drill Safety Guy's Boy Scout troop 
participated in earlier this fall - local firefighters.

This has been rattling around in my head for a while, for quite a long time - in fact, since long before the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook last week.  I've been troubled by how to keep students safe in the event of an armed aggressor entering the school since I returned to substitute teaching just over a year ago.  It's a mark of our times that when I was working as a teacher over 15 years ago, we weren't really thinking about school shootings very much.  We did deal with a couple bomb threats from disgruntled students that resulted in school evacuations, so we weren't naive.  It just that protecting ourselves from an armed and violent intruder wasn't in the forefront of our minds.  While we had a couple evacuation drills and many fire drills, we didn't do a single lock-down drill during the three years I was at that school.

Our son was less than a year old when the Columbine school shooting happened, and I was not teaching at that point in my life.  It wasn't the first school shooting I'd ever heard of, but it was by far the worst, with the greatest loss of life.  I was, like most of our country, horrified.  "Never again!" our nation cried.  But it wasn't the last time.  Tragedy has struck our schools again and again since that day in 1999.

I'm not going to debate gun laws.  I'm not going to debate health care and mental health service availability (although I do have a suggestion related to that).  I'm not going to cry about poor parenting, violent video games, or the breakdown of the nuclear family.  All are arguably factors behind many violent crimes, and there are more issues than those to consider.  But I do have some practical suggestions for improved school safety, coming from the perspective of a teacher and substitute teacher.  Please take these ideas as they are meant:  one more voice in the dialog about how to keep our children safe at school.  Some of these ideas are very expensive, I realize, while others are really simple.

1.  Have a quick way to cover windows in classroom doors in the event of a threat.  Most classroom doors have windows in them.  In a lock-down, teachers in many schools are told to put paper over the windows so no one can see into the room.  Um, THAT'S NOT PRACTICAL. Yes, they can keep paper and tape by the door.  But the time spent putting up the paper is time that would be better spent getting the children to a safe area.  Instead, mount inexpensive window blinds above each door-window on the inside of the classroom.  ZIP!  Ta-da, no one can see in.  Or, even cheaper, put a strip of velcro above the window, and keep a piece of felt or fabric with the corresponding velcro beside the door.  Now THAT'S inexpensive.

2.  Make sure classrooms can be locked from the INSIDE.  That sounds like common sense, but you'd be amazed how many schools have doors that can only be locked/unlocked from the hallway.  It doesn't make sense to have the teachers expose themselves with their doors open while they lock them as a potential shooter is in the hallways.  Retro-fitting doors with all-new locks can be very expensive.  However, slide-bolts are NOT expensive, and could be quickly added to the top inside of any door as a simple, quick deterrent to someone trying to get into a classroom.

3.  Make sure substitute teaching staff have a way to secure their classrooms.  Day-to-day subs don't usually have pass keys like regular teachers do.  In my school, if there were a lock-down, I would not physically be able to lock any classroom door, since they all lock/unlock by key from the hallway.  I could barricade a door, but that's precious time lost that an assailant could take advantage of and force their way into the room.  Perhaps a daily sub teacher key sign-out/sign-in system would work, or the above-mentioned dead-bolts so subs wouldn't need keys to secure the room they're working in.

4.  This is undoubtedly very expensive, but bullet-proof glass in the doors and windows at and near entrances would safeguard the public areas found at the front of every school.  The Connecticut shooter entered the school by breaking a window.  Replacing every first-floor window in a school with bullet-proof glass isn't practical (and the fact that we're even talking about the idea is depressing beyond belief), but it would make sense to make the first-floor accesses at the main entrance the least vulnerable to breaking glass.

5.  Many schools have rules prohibiting the carrying of backpacks, bulky purses, and gym bags in the halls during the school day.  Those rules should be enforced.  If those rules aren't in place, they should be.

6.  Better communication of concerns, threats, and incidents from the top down and the bottom up - from the administration to the teachers and students, teachers and students to the administration, and from the schools to the community and the community to the schools.  There was an incident at our school earlier this week, and most of the teachers heard the details about it from the students, other teachers, or from people in the community, not from the school administration.  No email, no phone call, no letter, just hearsay and word of mouth.  Come on!  Treat teachers like the professionals they are and keep them in the loop when things happen, so they know the truth and can be aware of what's going on.  No teacher should have to find out details about a problem or incident at their school from someone who doesn't work there.  Heaven only knows what the parents make of the rumors their kids bring home from school, and what they hear from other parents when something happens at school.

7.  Have regular lock-down drills.  You'd be amazed at how many schools have not had such a drill in YEARS.  Neither the teachers nor the students are familiar with how to react in such an emergency.  If it's a lock-down, what are the procedures?  If it's an evacuation, do the teachers, support staff, AND PARENTS know what to do and where to meet to pick up their students?  Are the students familiar with the "safe zone" in their classroom, and will they go there quickly and obediently?

8.  Don't let students open the doors for anyone during the school day.  All access to/from the school should be through one main entrance, controlled by adults in a central office.  There is no reason for all schools not to have video surveillance and a buzzer/intercom system to let people in during the school day.  But students need to know that they should not let people in through side doors, nor should they go out through side doors.  This is also where the "open campus" idea needs some tweaking, where senior high students can leave campus for lunch.  Again, they should go in/out through one set of doors, monitored from the office, not in/out the exit closest to the local fast food row, with their friends ready to let in stragglers.  It's not convenient, not for the students and certainly not for the office staff, but it's a necessary safeguard, and a relatively simple one.

  9. (ADDED 12/21/12)  This is neither simple nor local, but it HAS to be put forward:  Streamline and speed up the referral process to get mental health help for troubled students, both via the schools and via their own family insurance (whether that's publicly funded or privately held).  I'm amazed and confounded by how long it takes a troubled student to get mental health services and changes in educational placement (different school settings appropriate to their needs).  It seems like many (most) schools are reactive rather than proactive in this regard, with cumbersome local and state procedures and laws hindering how quickly someone can get help.  In my experience, it seems like school administrations wait for a crisis before a troubled student will get the help they need.  Student difficulties often drag on and on with teachers and counselors documenting increasing levels of difficulty and acting out for the student.  Teachers and counselors spend a lot of time trying to help their students, redirect them, encourage them, discipline them, but the student is often trapped in a cycle of reaction from the school.  The student acts out, gets a referral for detention or suspension, then returns to the school after serving their discipline, and the cycle repeats, in many cases dozens of times each school year without further steps outside the school setting being taken to help the student.  Too often it seems that no real change occurs until there's a crisis requiring the student's immediate removal from the school, forcing the parents to seek outside help.  It shouldn't take months (or even years) for students to get serious help for serious issues.  Also, many students move around due to shifting family dynamics, and services are lost or lag as they change schools and communities.  Many parents don't advocate for their children because they don't know they can, and sadly some parents just don't care.  When it comes right down to it, PARENTS need to advocate for their children, and getting their children help shouldn't be an obstacle course, and it shouldn't be solely up to the schools.  There is no simple fix for this problem, but it has to be discussed.

10.  (ADDED 12/21/12)  Have a panic button in school offices like you do for banks, directly connected to emergency services.  The system should not only sound an alarm at the police station/dispatcher, but also include sound-activated recording so that events could be recorded in a "black box" activated when the button is pushed.  That way there would be a sound recording of the situation as it occurs from one or more points of view in the school building.

The last suggestion on my list has merit, but is the most expensive and least palatable one to me, since I still value the idea of our schools as places of study without the intrusion of a police presence.  It's controversial, no doubt about it, and I go back and forth with myself if it's a good idea.  I confess I'm insulated, having taught in small suburban and rural schools, not in major urban areas in an inner-city school.  I have trouble getting past the idea of having a police officer at every elementary, middle, junior and senior high school everywhere.  It just shouldn't be necessary.  But our world is so broken, the idea has to be put out there now:

11.  Have a police officer or a hired armed security guard on duty at every school.  Some schools (mostly high schools, mostly urban) already do this; most schools do not.  Budget constraints and practicality limit that kind of manpower on the ground, and frankly, who would have thought a primary school would ever be a target for that kind of violence?  Still, having a police officer at all schools is a good idea on many levels, starting with safety, and including having another positive role model for the students.  The school campus I sub at now had a local police officer there for a long time.  I'm not sure how long he was there, since I've only been working there for just over a year now, but I get the impression he was a fixture at the school; everyone knew him, and students still talk about him.  This past fall his position wasn't funded and he's not there any more.  Having Officer B. at the school was a GOOD thing, and the staff and most of the students miss him.  (You can guess which kids don't miss him.)

This is far from a perfect, comprehensive list of solutions to school safety issues related to violence.  I know some schools have security guards with metal detectors at all entrances.  Some people favor arming teachers with concealed-carry permits, or keeping guns in schools for trained staff to use if necessary.  I have my opinions about guns in schools aside from law enforcement, even ostensibly for the protection of the students.  I've even heard some people suggest somehow monitoring anyone and everyone taking anti-psychotic or anti-depressant meds, and locking them up if they refuse to take their meds (Big Brother ring a bell?  How about civil rights?).  But the practical ideas I put forward above are worth mentioning and debating. What do you think?  What would you suggest?

Added 12/21/12:

Other things that may be considered, keeping cost in mind as a limiting factor:

         1.  Fencing all playgrounds and having them monitored by surveillance cameras.

         2.  Surveillance cameras for all parking areas associated with the school.

         3.  Metal detectors at school entrances, with trained security staff (already in place in
              schools in troubled areas, but Sandy Hook shows that anywhere is vulnerable; no
              school is immune to the possibility of violence)

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