School Safety Part II: Stakeholders Weigh In

For our September issue, we convened a roundtable of principals and administrators who had dealt with active shooters on their campuses and in their communities. In this issue, we sought the input of additional stakeholders who are actively involved in school safety. Our roundtable, held in June, included Carl Fetcko, Canonsburg Police Department school resource officer (SRO) for Canonsburg Middle School in Pennsylvania; Julie Kasper, assistant principal at Century High School in Hillsboro, OR; and Jack Tucker, student council president at Carroll Senior High School in Southlake, TX, and an NASSP Student Leadership Advisory Committee member. Principal Leadership Senior Editor Michael Levin-Epstein moderated the discussion.

Levin-Epstein: In the wake of Parkland, we’ve heard many suggestions for improving school safety. What are your top three recommendations?

Kasper: I would say, first and foremost, my recommendation would be a greater focus on mental health and wellness, more training with trauma-informed care, and increasing school budgets for [a] greater number of school counselors to address student needs.

Fetcko: Schools should have school resource officers in place, with a marked unit in the vicinity of the school, to where there’s a deterrent—as soon as someone drives by the school or comes near the school, they see that there are police present at that location. Another recommendation would be the training of the staff in the school, as well as the students, in what to do in these types of situations, and making a single entry point for everyone to enter in instead of having multiple points where students and staff and everybody else can come into the school. It’s a lot easier to manage one point than it is multiple points.

Tucker: I would say open up the doors of communication between students and the admin staff; make sure there’s a clear representation of what the school has as its safety policy and there’s no gray area—it’s very black and white on what is acceptable and what is not. I would also say more security on access into the school—whether that’s through ID badges that allow access or a better system of signing in or signing out—just making sure that only people who are allowed to be in the school are actually in the school at all times. What Julie said about the greater budget for school safety and training and all that, I would say that as well.

School Resource Officers and the Importance of Proximity

Levin-Epstein: Let’s discuss the role of the SRO a little more.

Kasper: We do have an SRO. She’s amazing. She is part of our staff; she’s part of our family. Unfortunately, in our district, SROs are not full time at any school, so while she spends the majority of her time at Century High School with us, she also has other schools for which she is responsible. She is a presence on campus. She is visible; her marked car is visible. In slow times, she may help administrators just meet with kids. Relationships are her priority, but she’s an integral part of our safety team. A different assistant principal is in charge of safety, but she helps make sure that we are following through with our monthly drills; she makes sure that we’re following rules and procedures.

We also have our SROs present at athletic events, activities, evening events where we expect a large population of our kids—not only for safety, but again, just reinforcing those relationships. Our school district is unique in that recently we hired our own chief of police for the Hillsboro School District Police Department. Alex used to be an SRO decades ago, but now he runs our own police department within our school district. We just had a safety summit last Tuesday, and we talked a lot about additional safety requirements and procedures for the coming school year.

Fetcko: With my position as the school resource officer, basically I’ll go through my day here real quick: In the morning, I report to my station first to pick up the car. We’re in a town, so our school is not off anywhere—it’s kind of in the middle of the town. I park my police car right across from the office, so anybody who is coming into the office to the main entry, they automatically see that there’s an officer there. When the students are coming in, we have two entry points—in the front of the school as well as in the back of the school, where bus students get dropped off. People who are getting dropped off by their parents are dropped off in the front. I usually bounce between both entry points, greeting the students, checking on the staff, making sure that all points are covered to where there is staff at the entry doors monitoring the people coming into the building.

After all the kids are in their home base, while attendance is being taken, I’ll do a sweep of all the halls, walk all the floors—it’s a five-story building—see if anything looks out of the ordinary, checking the doors that should be locked, where the maintenance room doors are, boiler room and whatnot. Then, after that’s done, I just stop in different classrooms while they’re in home base and get to know the students. I think it’s an integral part. If you get to know your students and they get to know you, they build that trust in you that transfers into the community. They’re going to feel more in tune to come and speak to you. I’m also in the classroom—I assist with different classes.

Middle School Issues, which is a class taught by our guidance counselors where they talk about bullying and different things like that, I’ll chime in on different subjects and give my different points of view, and even some of the legal ramifications of some of the actions that these kids do. I’m also in the health class; I teach the drugs-and-alcohol segment of that class for the students. It’s a lot of student interaction in those classes. We get them involved. When lunch periods start, if I’m not in a classroom or handling something else, I’m in the cafeteria with the students. We have four lunch periods. The rest of the day, if I’m not in class, I just stop in different classrooms. I’ll check in the office, just keep monitoring everything until dismissal time. Again, I check on the two dismissal points, the front as well as the rear, and make sure everything’s staffed well.

Tucker: My school has an SRO as well. I personally see him as a very positive influence on our campus. He does make the effort to find connections with the students and be a presence in our school, but from a student’s perspective, most of the work that I see is dealing with traffic flow in the morning and drug-related issues within our student body. That could just be because that’s my student perspective and I don’t see what happens behind closed doors, because I’m sure there’s a lot more to it than just that. But I definitely do think he is a good thing for our campus.

Limiting Access

Levin-Epstein: What are your thoughts about a single point of entry?

Kasper: That has been a concern for a long time and has been difficult. One hundred percent of our entrance doors are unlocked in the morning as students enter. We have three points of entry: a north entry, where most of our upperclassmen enter; a south entry, where our bus riders enter; and then a main door in the front of our school where we see kids getting dropped off. We just passed a bond in our school district and a large portion of the money is going toward capital improvements with regard to safety.

We are going to have a redesign of our front entrance, where people will have to be buzzed in. Currently, you can come in our main entrance and bypass the main office altogether. With our construction, people will have to move through the main office before getting access to the rest of the building. I do know that they are adding alarms to the other doors. While we currently lock them down after first period starts, kids open doors for other kids all the time, so I know that they’re adding alarms to those doors.

We’ve talked a little bit about cards to enable people entrance into certain areas of the building. Jack mentioned this earlier: One of our high schools went to 100 percent staff and student ID badges worn at all times, and that is something that all of our schools will enforce in the years to come. All adults, all students, anyone in the building will be required to have their ID badge on. The single entrance idea, even with all of the improvements, is difficult to implement. It’s really getting 100 percent of our population, especially students, understanding that opening doors for outsiders is a huge concern and is a risk.

Fetcko: I agree with Julie on that, that it is tough with a single point of entry, especially at my school, being in the town setting. Plus, if you have 10 buses that show up at one time and unload, you have a high number of students coming in at one time, so you would have to coordinate with your transportation department also to possibly stagger times a little bit. Then, we have no way of bringing the vehicle traffic in for parents who are dropping their students off. That’s why we do it on the front street where they come into the office.

I understand that the single point of entry is tough, but in my opinion it makes it the safest way, because you can heavily monitor that one point of entry. All of the other doors in our building are locked from the outside, obviously, and you can get out by just pushing on them. I would recommend that those be alarmed and monitored with a camera system at all times as well, so you could see who would be going out, if a student is leaving early or something without permission. The single point’s tough to do, but I just think in reality it’s the safest way.

Tucker: My campus consists only of 11th and 12th graders, and the majority of the student body drives to school. The way our campus is laid out, we have four major parking lots for students, and each of those parking lots is close to an entry point. For us, it would be very hard to have a single entry point, just because of the way our school is laid out. That would require students to walk almost half a mile across the campus to the main office. But I will say we do have our ID badges, which all students have. We aren’t required to wear them, but we aren’t allowed to get into the school if we don’t buzz ourselves in. So, at every door there is a little scanner where we have to scan our ID to get access into the school.

At the front office the door is open at all times, but there is a holding area where you can enter [either] the front office or you can enter the school, but to enter the school you have to buzz in and [go through] the front office to the school. I feel like that is the best system that my school is going to achieve, unless we were able to completely redesign the architecture and the layout of our campus.

Uncovering Hidden Dangers

Levin-Epstein: What about installing metal detectors?

Kasper: As far as I am aware, that is not the direction that our school district is going or considering at this point. I’m not even sure that exists in Portland Public Schools, and  we’re 20 minutes west of our biggest city. I will say, though, [in] our feeder middle school, they don’t allow kids to carry backpacks throughout the day. Backpacks are required to be in lockers. We have a neighboring school district, Beaverton School District, that goes further and doesn’t allow backpacks at activities or athletic events. We’re not to a point where metal detectors are an option we’re looking at, that I’m aware of.

Fetcko: At my school, I don’t think we’ve ever considered metal detectors yet, mainly because of the two points of entry that we utilize. I also think part of it is going to be on budgeting. When our students are getting dropped off on the buses, again, like I said, you’ve got seven or eight buses lined up, and X amount of kids coming off buses that you would need several metal detectors, several more people to staff it. I think it becomes a budgetary issue for that. I don’t think it’s necessary yet at our school; some schools, possibly, I would agree with it. To touch on the backpack part, our kids are not allowed to have their backpacks with them unless they have permission—if they’re injured or something and can’t carry their books. For physical education class, they usually have smaller backpacks that they just keep their change of clothes in [and] they have to put [it] in their locker right after that class. The less that these kids can bring to school the better, in my opinion.

Tucker: We also do not have metal detectors. From a student perspective, there’s part of me that believes they should be in place, just because somebody could bring a weapon to school and there’d be no way to tell if there’s not a metal detector. But there’s also the perspective that we don’t want our students in our schools to feel like they’re essentially going through the system feeling that they could be doing something wrong. I feel like psychologically it could affect students in a way.

Regarding backpacks, at our school we only carry backpacks. We have our backpacks on us 24/7, from class to class. We don’t use lockers. We have all of our stuff in our backpacks, and we use them all day. That does make some kids kind of anxious, because there is no caution about someone bringing a weapon in their backpack and having it in their backpack all day at school. And there’s no way to prevent that, essentially. So, there is some anxiety on my campus regarding that. But the only way to really fix that would be either to require students to use lockers or to have a metal detector installed.

Mental Health Issues

Levin-Epstein: What can be done in the mental health arena to improve overall school safety?

Kasper: I think the more we focus on knowing every student by name, strength, and need, and front-load our focus on relationships and really connecting kids with our campuses, I think that’s huge. In terms of mental health, I think the more our schools can focus on trauma-informed care and restorative justice practices instead of punitive discipline, the more we grow those relationships. With regard to mental health and wellness, we have four high schools in our town, and [at] our high school as well as one of our feeder elementary schools, we’re lucky enough to have wellness centers in our buildings, and those wellness centers are staffed with an adult.

Kids can access the wellness center. It has several activities. We’ve got a rock wall in our wellness center, there are some dark spaces in our wellness center. It is really “go chill out, talk to someone if you need to,” and that has been a huge win for us in the last year, just being able to give kids a place, have a timeout for those kids who need it and a supervised timeout so that they can talk to a safe person.

Research shows that spending time in a dark place helps people de-stress and become calmer. As a society, we must lose the stigma connected to students and just people in general seeking help for mental health needs. It should be looked at and [as] socially acceptable as it is for kids who just go see the counselor for a schedule change. I think there’s a stigma, especially in our country, with regard to people seeking help, and we’ve got to lose that.

Fetcko: I’m not an expert on the mental health side of everything. At my school are two guidance counselors who are amazing and handle a lot of the issues with the students who are having mental health problems at the time. I think there needs to be an open line of communication between the guidance counselors, the staff at the school, the student, as well as the family, so that we know when there’s an issue going on.

If the family knows there’s some type of issue going on, that a student’s having one of his episodes or issues, they have that open line of communication to let us know, so while he is in the school we can monitor it; we can address it accordingly with the counselors and make sure that his or her day goes well and there’s no other issues. I just think an open line of communication with the family, as well as the staff, would be helpful when it comes to mental health.

Tucker: I think one of the best ways we can address mental health in our schools is by having counselors designated for students with mental health issues. I know at my school we don’t have any [designated mental health] counselors. I guess our counselors’ job is to do that, but usually, their job comes down to … scheduling and dealing with their other counselor duties.

I think it’d be great if we had specific counselors, like additional ones, to help with students who are going through those types of things that students can feel that they can approach. What Julie said about the mental wellness center—that would be something that I think would be extremely beneficial on my campus, and I think all schools should have something like that, or some version of that, on their campuses.

Mental illness is a very big issue that for a while has been swept under the rug, and I feel like lately it’s being brought more to light, which is very important. Again, what Julie said about the stigma, it’s very important to know that there are kids in all schools that struggle with mental health, and they need to know that it’s OK to have mental health issues and it’s OK to be going through something. But it’s our schools’ [jobs] and our jobs—responsibility—to provide the right resources for those students. The goal of a school is to help a kid get a good education, but beyond that it’s to give them resources that they may not be able to get at home, and it’s to give them a community where they feel safe and they feel comforted. That’s something that I would love to see more present in my own campus and schools all across the country.

Advice to Principals

Levin-Epstein: If a principal came up to you and said, “What one piece of advice do you have for me in regard to school safety,” how would you respond?

Kasper: Relationships, relationships, relationships. Not only am I an administrator in my building, but my children, who are all in elementary school, will eventually come through this feeder system and come to this school. I tend to look at things—especially my relationships with my own students and how I deal with any situation that comes up—I always remember that these kids are someone’s son or daughter. Coming from a parent perspective, just knowing that parents send their kids not only to get educated, but to be taken care of. I said this earlier: Our goal is always to connect every kid with a peer group, an adult, athletics, activities, something to help them explore their interests. Research shows that the more connected a kid is to a school, the more successful they are academically. It’s figuring out how to connect those dots and how to connect with kids and just take care of them emotionally and help create positively contributing members of society as they leave the walls and the doors of our buildings.

Fetcko: I agree with Julie on that—it’s building that relationship with the student as well as with the student’s family. For me, I attended the school that I work at a long time ago. So far, I’ve had two of my own children go through that school, and I have two more that will be going through. My youngest daughter will be attending there this year with me. So, I’m born and raised in the town that I am employed by, with the district and everything. I think if you get to know the students and get to know the parents, it opens up the line of communication. It makes everybody more comfortable, and you get to talk to them better. You can talk to them on a personal level rather than as a police officer talking to a student or a police officer talking to a parent. You get to develop that relationship to the point where you become friends with them. So, I think the relationship with the students, the staff, and everything is very important.

Tucker: I would agree with both Julie and Carl about relationships. As well as relationships, open and transparent communication. Just from a student’s perspective again, when students come to school they want to feel like they belong. They want to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. That doesn’t necessarily mean they have to join a club or an organization—that can start just from the administration creating a climate and culture on that campus of welcoming and belonging.

I feel like if that is put in place, then greater things will come to follow as a result. Like I said, a lot of school safety issues do sometimes derive from mental health. By making the school a place where positivity and acceptance and welcoming are very present, I feel like that could help down the road with potential mental health situations and potentially could improve the safety of a school.

I think just as long as the students feel like they have a place where they are welcomed and they are comfortable talking to the administration. One thing I do really want to say for principals is if a student comes to you with an issue or a suggestion or something that they are passionate about, it is so important that the principal, whether they agree or not, makes that student’s thoughts and opinions feel validated. For a student to build up the courage to go talk to their administration, that can be really hard. And for the principal just to shut them down without any consideration, that can really affect a student and affect their confidence and affect their trust with the administration and the school.

So, it’s really important for the principal to value every single student in their school and to really make sure that they are listening to the students, because at the end of the day, the school is for the students, and the principals need to acknowledge that and need to make sure the students feel welcomed, included, and validated.