Making School a Safe Place
As a “School Safety Specialist,” the question I get asked most often is, “How do we make our school safe?” I secretly laugh to myself prior to answering this question because I know the Superintendent, Principal, Teacher, or parent who asked the question is expecting some doctoral level thesis citing sources and using expensive cutting-edge programs. I can only explain the look on their face when I give them my answer as the same look my 4 year old son gives me when I tell him he can only have one piece of candy after dinner. “Really?” That’s the “Specialists” answer? That’s the big “ah ha” moment? My answer is simple. Build, maintain and keep positive relationships.
Profiling the active assailant
Let me explain. Most people want to know how to stop the highly publicized “active shooters” from happening in their schools or towns. It is important to note that several studies have been done at the federal level and “there is no profile of a student attacker. There have been male and female attackers, high-achieving students with good grades as well as poor performers. These acts of violence were committed by students who were loners and socially isolated, and those who were well-liked and popular” (United States Secret Service, 2018). There is no checklist for determining if someone will be an “active shooter,” it can literally be anyone. This usually scares people, and the impending “sky is falling” mentality tends to take over. It is important to not shy away from the incidents and from the questions, but to talk about the issues and present the facts.
The first fact
The first fact, that is sometimes the hardest to swallow, is our schools ARE safe! In the last five years, there have been 301 violent deaths in our schools, while there have been just over 500,000 violent deaths outside of schools. That means we are 1600 times safer INSIDE of school than OUTSIDE. We are 10 times more likely to be shot at a restaurant than at school and 200 times more likely to be shot at home than at school!
The second fact
So why does it seem like all we hear about is violence in our schools? The simple second fact is that, it IS all we hear about. Every time a tragic incident happens, there is 24/7 media coverage for weeks. Graphic videos, photos, and soundbites circle news networks and social media so we can’t get away from it. Then when we think it might end, an anniversary sparks more coverage. “80 percent of the general public agreed that media coverage of mass shootings can make offenders famous, and 70 percent agreed that this coverage can lead to subsequent attacks” (Federal Commission on School Safety, 2018). There have been pushes by groups such as “No Notoriety” or “Don’t Name Them, Don’t Show Them” to encourage media outlets to not give the assailant any fame by talking about them, but instead focusing on the victims. It is important for our society to understand that in today’s media coverage, social media, and internet, people will have access to any information they want, therefore, it is on us to talk about facts.
The last thing I will mention is that by not addressing what is going on because we think that by shielding our youth we will keep them safer, is false. Our youth are bombarded by information from all levels. It is important to teach our youth coping skills to overcome negative news and teaching them how to research incidents to determine what is real and what is not. At a school level, these incidents are talked about at the classroom level, which usually means the only adult in the room is the teacher.
Empowering staff members
So many times when I talk to educators, they tell me that their first thought in a crisis is to call the office. My message to principals and superintendents is that we MUST empower our educators to be the adult in the room. When I drop my 7 year old daughter off at school, I assume that her 2nd grade teacher will be able to make a decision in any kind of situation. Often times we don’t empower our staff members to make decisions in crisis situations. Don’t believe me? Ask a teacher in your building, or if you are a teacher, as yourself, what would you do if a student came running into your room and said there was a fire in the hallway? Do you know where the nearest fire alarm is? When was the last time a teacher pulled the fire alarm during a drill? Is simply going through the same motions during a drill really helping and empowering anyone?
We must change the way to do drills in schools. It is important to remember to conduct drills with the best trauma informed practices in mind, however, we also have to keep in mind that our youth deal with these situations or thoughts every day. I hear all the time that schools do not like doing “lockdown drills” because of the trauma it causes. My response is asking if the school conducts fire drills. Usually, I am met with confusion. Of course schools do fire drills, many of them at least once a month! I then get to tell a story about my son going to daycare. At 1 year old, my son entered a year round daycare, and every month they practiced fire drills. The first three months, he hated the drills. He would sit on the floor, refuse to move, and cry. The daycare employee would have to carry him from the room outside and console him. In true one year old form, when I asked why he didn’t like the drills, he would cover his ears and say, “owie, owie.” After explaining to him what he was supposed to do during the drill and why, and after a few more attempts, my son now loves fire drills and will lead the line outside. Were the first few drills traumatic for my son? Probably. The real question is, was it worth it? He obviously got over the trauma, and what he was taught in the process could very well save his life someday. What he learned has rolled over into everyday life as well. We asked my now four year old what he would do if the house caught fire, and he stated that he would go outside and wait for us there. If we apply this story to our students at schools, and if we truly embrace the “lockdown drills,” what would their story be? The hope is that with trauma informed drills, time to talk about the importance and what is expected, the level of anxiety and discomfort subsides while the important life-saving information takes hold, and keeps our students and staff safe during an actual event.
Drills equal trust
Empowering the staff to make decisions will help students better rely on the adult in the room during a crisis situation which will help build that positive relationship when they see the adult as someone who knows what to do. Staff members who know what to do, practice what they would do, and can teach their students what they want done, will help to ease fears and trauma during drills or real life events. If my teacher doesn’t know what to do in case of a fire, why would I go to them to tell them that another student has a weapon or is talking about suicide? Why would I trust them to handle that situation appropriately?
Mental health and suicide are serious issues in the United States today. “Between 2007 and 2015 suicide rates increased by 31 percent for males aged 15-19 (from 10.8 to 14.2 per 100,000 population) and by 40 percent for females aged 15-19 (from 2.4 to 5.1 per 100,000) (Federal Commission on School Safety, 2018). In addition, according to the semi-annual survey on youth risk behavior published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention; 1 in 12 high school students have attempted suicide. Increasing the training that adults who interact with children receive to help them recognize the signs and symptoms of mental illness and suicidal ideations are great starting points.
In a survey done in 2006, students stated that teachers have the second most influence on their life at 80 percent (parents were number one with 96 percent), however, only 1 percent of students stated that their teacher understood them the most which was tied for 6th on the list with religious leader (Sprick, 2017). Again, having the relationship with students so that they feel comfortable approaching an adult with their problems or the problems of their peers is the main component. Solving the problem only happens when we know there is a problem. The situation I hated most in schools is when a parent would call me to tell me their child is having a problem at school. So many times I would get upset and ask the student why they didn’t come talk to me at the time so I could help. Most of the time I was met with the ever popular, “I don’t know” answer. It wasn’t until I looked inward that I found the true problem. I should have been happy that the student had an adult in their life they trusted and could go to. I needed to change the way I did things to build relationships with students so that instead of having to wait until they got home to discuss their problems, they felt comfortable talking to me. They were not the problem, they are CHILDREN, and I am the ADULT. It is my job to make that relationship, and to never stop trying even if there is failure.
Why this is important
Relationships between a trusted adult and a student will save lives. “At least one person noticed a concerning behavior in every active shooter’s life. Prior research has shown that leakage of intent to commit violence is common before attacks. 88 percent of those active shooters age 17 and younger leaked intent to commit violence” (Silver 2018). With study after study leading us to the same conclusions; there is no checklist as to who could be an active shooter, that all active shooters show concerning signs, and that most adolescent shooters will leak information about the attack prior to the actual event, why don’t we as society and as educators start looking inward. I concede that most teachers did not become educators to run through “lockdown drills,” or to become rich and famous. You became a teacher because you love children and want to see them succeed! There is something about educators that see something more in students than the children can see in themselves. It is time to remember why you chose the classroom and not the boardroom. It is time to again go above and beyond in every aspect of a child’s life. You could be the only cheerleader in a student’s life. You could be the one teacher to change the trajectory of a student’s life and get it back on the positive path. You could be the adult in a student’s life that they feel comfortable sharing their successes, failures, or fears with. You could be the adult that gets information to stop a suicide or active assailant. Always remember, building a positive relationship with a student is the single most important thing we can do to keep our schools safe.
Federal Commission on School Safety. (2018). Final Report of the Federal Commission on School Safety, 27, 49, 59
National Threat Assessment Center. (2018). Enhancing school safety using a threat assessment model: An operational guide for preventing targeted school violence. U.S. Secret Service, Department of Homeland Security, 1
Randy Sprick “Foundations” Safe and Civil Schools National Conference, 18 July, 2017, Marriot Hotel, Portland, OR.
Silver, J., Simons, A., & Craun, S. (2018). A Study of the Pre-Attack Behaviors of Active Shooters in the United States Between 2000-2013. Federal Bureau of Investigations, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington D.C. 20535, 20, 25
John Calvert is currently the School Safety Specialist for the Kansas State Department of Education. Prior to that position, John was a law enforcement officer for 12 years, the last 6 as a School Resource Officer. John graduated from Washburn University in 2006 with a bachelor’s degree in Criminal Justice.