Talking Points on School Safety

Police Tape

Our hearts go out to the families of Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, CT. The tragedy they are dealing with makes every other concern we may have pale in comparison.

Like many educators on Friday, I had no words to express the grief that this terrible incident has caused.

Yet Monday (if not before), school leaders will be expected to reassure our communities and parents that their children are safe in school – at least, as safe as we can reasonably make them, given the unpredictability of the world we live in.

Last year, there was a major shooting just down the street from my school, so I’ve had a chance to think through some of the relevant safety issues at length. I don’t mean to raise any policy or political issues here, only to provide school leaders with some help in thinking and communicating about these issues when families ask.

“Why don’t you have metal detectors?” is often the first thing people say after a tragedy like this. “Or why don’t you at least lock all of the doors and buzz people in?”

Each school community will make different choices about how to approach security, but no one wants their school to feel like a prison. Some common best practices include:

  • Locking all exterior doors except the doors closest to the office
  • Limiting public access to outdoor spaces used by students, e.g. portables and playgrounds
  • Practicing lockdown procedures (doors locked, shades pulled shut, everyone under desks) on a monthly basis
  • Practicing reverse-evacuation procedures to get students inside quickly if there is a problem outside (this is especially important in elementary schools where students normally line up and wait to be led inside)

If you have these essentials in place, let your community know about the procedures and what you are doing to ensure that they will be followed successfully in an emergency. If you don’t have them in place, let your community know of your plans for teaching and rehearsing them.

A Look at the Statistics
School safety planning is an exercise in preparing for the unlikely. While it’s likely that your school will go on lockdown every once in a while, the odds of a Newtown- or Columbine-type incident happening in your school are exceedingly small. As we attempt to help people deal with their grief and fear, it’s also helpful to know the facts.

Including the Columbine incident, there have been four mass school killings in the US since 1999. With some 100,000 K-12 schools in this country, this means there is roughly one incident of this type every 325,000 school years.

There is little that school leaders can do to prevent psychopaths bent on destruction from carrying out their plans; metal detectors, visitors’ badges, and drills are limited in what they can accomplish. Our safety comes not from preparedness, but from the rarity of this type of incident.

We should not confuse magnitude with frequency when we are thinking about tragedies. While each incident has loomed large in our national consciousness, we need to acknowledge our grief without allowing it to turn into unwarranted fear.

Back to Basics
For the much more common incidents, such as interpersonal conflicts that play out on school grounds, the common-sense procedures that schools have had in place for years can make all the difference. In the vast majority of school violence incidents, perpetrators are bent not on mass destruction, but on attacking a small number of specific individuals.

Lockdowns, security drills, and other typically rehearsed procedures can dramatically reduce the risk of harm to others, while also helping to prevent violence targeted at specific individuals.

A Time for Hugs
In a time like this, I think it’s also appropriate to let parents know that the best outlet for our feelings may simply be hugging our kids. We can’t make the world a completely safe place, but we can treasure whatever safety we have, and be grateful for each day we are able to live and learn in peace.

What are your best ideas for helping families deal with tragedies like this, and for helping your school prepare for emergencies?

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About Justin Baeder

Justin Baeder helps school administrators increase their productivity through the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network. Learn More »