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What Is School Safety

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Michael Dorn discusses the roles of teachers, administrators, school districts, parents, school counselors, and school nurses in handling school crises.

What is school safety?

School safety is a process of education being able to continue without disruption, without harm, without danger. It's basically the best way to get the most out of the learning process. It's actually the foundation for an effective learning environment.

Why is school safety important?

School safety is necessary for learning to occur. The best way to have an excellent school is to have a safe school because safety incidents distract from the learning process. Our schools have never been so challenged as they are today in our society. We dare to educate those who are cast aside in previous generations, special needs students, for example. Schools face an even wider array of hazards than they did 20 and 30 years ago. For example, there has been a relatively new phenomenon like terrorism in schools over the last few decades. School safety is so that children can learn, parents do not worry about their children at school, and educators can apply their gift of helping our students.

What role do teachers play in school safety?

Teachers have a crucial role in school safety. First and foremost it is the proper supervision of students. The vast majority of school safety incidents, be they weapons assault, bullying, drug violations, or sexual incidents that occur in schools from time to time, involve a lack of proper supervision. So the first thing is for teachers to learn the techniques of supervision, to be motivated to supervise, and to understand that sometimes it's a life or death skill in some cases. The second thing is an extension of that, and that's close connectivity to students. Developing a proper and professional connection, a very human and personal connection to their students, to be aware of students under stress, and any problems that may occur. Both of these will enhance the ability of a teacher to reach and educate a child.

What role do school administrators play in school safety?

School administrators provide leadership and set the tone for school safety. And this is an important issue. School administrators must decide whether they're going to make things happen for children or let things happen to them. And a strong committed school administrator will make or break safety in a school, school district, or an independent school. And they have to provide focus and leadership by defining for themselves and for staff what their acceptable losses will be, because that's what this whole issue of school safety is. And again, if you want to have an exceptional school, you have to have exceptional safety. Learning does not occur in a disruptive environment, or an environment where children feel fear, or educators feel fear, or parents feel fear.

Do school districts have a legal obligation to keep schools safe?

Public school systems in many states have qualified immunity, so they have some protection. But in all states there is some legal requirement. Independent schools have exceptional legal requirements to protect children, as they're much more vulnerable to litigation. Our stance is that all schools have a moral obligation to protect children, and if we operate on the moral high ground, we work to provide a reasonable level of safety through proactive approach. We won't typically have to worry too much about our legal obligations, if we just remember that we are nurturing and protecting our community's most valuable, precious natural resource, our children.

What role do parents play in school safety?

What we find is, parents in both public and independent schools drive safety efforts in either a positive or negative way. Very often parents complain when school officials try to do the right thing. A common example is dress code. It's absolutely, positively, a negative for your child's school if they're not required to tuck their shirts in. Absolutely and positively, dress code reduces gun violations, danger to school and improves the learning environment. It has a positive effect on learning and on a reduction of bullying, for example. But many parents don't understand this and they become co-dependent with their children and they come and complain to school officials because they don't understand the real reason for dress code. They don't think something terrible can happen in their school and many school officials don't do the right thing because of this parental pressure. So parents need to become involved, become informed and become vocal when they do want good school safety - to be supportive. The parents who come to a board meeting are usually there, in our experience, to complain, and a lot of parents sit back silently and are thankful when school officials do what they are supposed to do. But we need to become involved as constituents to help drive things in a positive way.

What is the role of a school counselor in campus safety?

A school counsellor is an invaluable resource for the schools that are fortunate enough to have them. Like other professionals who help guide and support our children, their job is to be closely connected to students and act as a liaison between students, and internal and external resources that schools can avail themselves of to help children. Again, to help develop that close connectivity between staff and students, not only on an individual basis, but the basic climate in the schools. Understanding the way the children see the building as well as the adults, and making sure that we have alignment between the emotional needs of the kids, and the physical place, and the way we administer that place. They have a very important place in the school safety picture.

What is the role of the school nurse in campus safety?

For the schools that are fortunate enough to be staffed with nurses - and unfortunately, many of our schools are not properly staffed with nursing personnel - they're another invaluable resource. They can help, of course, with the physical needs of children on a day-to-day basis. But they're also a very crucial participant when they're asked to the table to make sure that school emergency plans are up to date, to help with biological incident planning, for example, to make sure that we have plans in place to always take our emergency meds out during any type of fire drill or any type of practice for a real event. Because under stress, if we haven't practiced on a day-to-day basis, we'll forget something as critical as taking the meds out of the building with us with the children. So they're an instrumental part to make sure a school is optimizing their public heath preventive measures, as well as mental heath. They very often spot bullying if they're alert to it and can help a child who's being bullied. So they're a really good point person for the school to detect and address preventive concerns, but also to help with our preparedness efforts.

What are common threats to school safety?

What we see are sometimes gang situations, weapons, drugs, truancy, and bullying is a common issue of course, that all schools need to be concerned with, and natural disasters for the region. Like any other setting, schools can, on very rare occasions, be targeted or incidental targets for terrorist acts. Basically schools have to have an all-hazards approach to safety because there are a variety of things that can happen in any setting, a school included. Many of them involve behavioural issues between children, of course, because of the nature of a school.

What is a school crisis?

A school crisis is any event out of the ordinary that negatively impacts a school. It can be a fire, it can be a fight of a large scale, for example, it could be a tornado. Basically it's anything that interferes significantly with the process of learning and of course anything that endangers safety or the potential damage to property. We step back from it and look at situations that may not necessarily be dangerous but are disruptive.

What is a school safety plan?

A school safety plan is defined by the United States Department of Education as a four phase plan, because it has sections addressing four distinct concerns. One is prevention and mitigation, keeping things from happening and minimizing the negative impact of those that occur. Another is the preparedness plan, to make sure that we're ready for a crisis in advance. Your response plan allows us to implement that preparedness plan under extreme stress. Also, the recovery plan addresses mental health recovery and business continuity, and those four phases in distinct written form make up that safety plan. It's an imperative document. Any school that lacks any one of those four components loses 25 points out of a hundred scale. If you are missing the fourth piece, you get at best a C, and we want to of course get an A on safety, and to do that we have to have a good safety plan.

What is considered a hazard in terms of school safety?

A hazard is anything that could cause death or serious injury, and emotional trauma to our students and staff. It's anything that could cause harm to people. And that could come in the range of children not being supervised properly, heavy traffic at dismissal at the end of the day, a chemical plant not far from the school, natural disasters that are predominant in our area, fire hazard in a closet. It's anything that if left unchecked and not addressed properly, can cause death, injury or emotional distress to our staff, students and visitors.


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