Guest post by Jeff Simon
Many are concerned about the growing reports of school safety incidents. According to the Educator’s School Safety Network, U.S. schools experienced 745 bomb threats in the 2015–16 academic year. And since 2013, there have been 210 school shootings, as reported by the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund. This escalation of school threats and violence is generating fear and anxiety in students, parents, and educators and wasting precious learning time.
It is not a matter of if a school safety incident is going to happen but rather, when. As administrators, we must be ready. In order to prepare for the worst, it is imperative that administrators lead the way in making schools safe and secure. What policies and practices should districts implement and how should leaders go about developing a school safety plan?
When tasked with improving our safety plan at Payson High School, I followed these guiding principles:
Don’t Reinvent the Wheel: Increase Knowledge of Safety Planning
It was important for me to first build my own capacity in safety planning to ensure I was working toward best practice. I started by attending as many safety-focused trainings as possible. Many of the presentations validated our current practices. They also helped me think comprehensively about school safety planning and gave me new ideas to improve practice.
One of the first things I learned is that districts need to align their school safety systems with emergency services so we all have common processes and vocabulary. To accomplish this task, all administrators on campus have taken classes from National Incident Management Systems (NIMS) to understand their structures in developing an incident command and safety protocols. These classes are available for free through the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Management Institute on FEMA.gov (we assigned classes 100, 200, and 700) and allow the user to understand what will happen if an incident occurs and the police and/or fire departments come onto the scene. Through those classes, we developed a school level incident command structure that mirrors NIMS protocols.
Don’t Create the Plan in Isolation: Collaborate with All Stakeholders
When constructing or modifying a safety plan, collaboration with stakeholders is imperative. We bring in the Payson police and fire departments to review our safety plans, perform a threat assessment of our facility, and participate in our emergency drills. They give us valuable recommendations, including where to locate “incident areas” so teachers and students can use secondary evacuation plans.
I also make sure to collaborate with each staff member from custodians to veteran teachers and learn about their specific work areas before deciding the evacuation and lockdown locations. From these meetings, we’ve received great ideas such as buddy systems for teachers, evacuation and lockdown “go kits,” secondary evacuation routes, and digital attendance processes for evacuations during transition and lunch times.
Don’t Leave It on the Shelf: Always Look to Improve the Process
After each drill and practice event, we hold a debriefing session where those observing and participating in the process give us constructive feedback to improve the process. These sessions require participants to discuss and resolve any issues that occurred. Any process changes are immediately made to the safety plan, which we view as a living document that we continually improve. We send a communication to staff, reporting the positive aspects of the drill and procedures that need to be corrected or changed.
Here’s a tip: Collect all safety books at the end of the school year. Our teachers turn in their safety books as part of their end-of-year checkout process. This way, I am able to update and redistribute these books, ensuring that each staff member has the most updated version.
Don’t Forget About Parents: Develop a Release and Reunification Process
One aspect that absolutely needs to be in every safety handbook is a process for release and reunification from multiple sites. In our small town, it was important for us to locate areas on and off campus where we could house our population of nearly 800 students, provide for emergency services as needed, and keep everybody safe through the emergency. In addition, there has to be a solid process where parents can be reunited with their children while accounting for every student, staff member, and volunteer. Our locations have been visited by our administration as well as our safety teams, and detailed plans have been created.
If we find ourselves in a release and reunification situation, it is imperative that everyone knows what they are required to do when staying with and monitoring students, working the check-in and check-out rooms, and working with students who are in need. Everything has to be uniform and detailed so that we can attend to students quickly and prevent unnecessary mistakes.
What are your best practices for developing a school safety plan?
Jeff Simon is the assistant principal of Payson High School in Payson, AZ, which serves 784 students in grades 9–12. He is the 2016 Arizona Assistant Principal of the Year.