In the aftermath of tragic school shootings-from Columbine to Sandy Hook-school safety remains a primary
concern for all community leaders, including secondary school principals. For Principal Leadership‘s first roundtable discussion, we convened a distinguished group of thought leaders representing influential groups involved in school safety issues, including Mo Canady, executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers (NASRO); Cathy Paine, chairwoman of the National Emergency Assistance Team of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP); and Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center. The roundtable, conducted in June, was moderated by senior editor Michael Levin-Epstein.
Levin-Epstein: Let’s begin with “A Framework for Safe and Successful Schools,” published by NASSP and five other organizations, which asserted that principals should be in the forefront of dealing with school safety issues and take proactive measures to try to prevent violence. So, what kinds of proactive measures can secondary school principals take to promote school safety?
Stephens: The first thing principals can do to promote school safety is to place school safety on the education agenda. Principals should incorporate safety into the school’s mission, which will open a window to creating a whole series of supporting policies and practices that support safe schools. [Such policies may include] establishing working partnerships with law enforcement, mental health agencies, and other youth-serving professionals and [implementing] effective practices like responsible dress codes, [and] student conduct and student search policies. This will enable school officials to better assess school safety threats and create behavior expectations that are clearly communicated, consistently enforced, and fairly applied. So, the beginning is really for the principal to take the leadership role, set the stage, and establish the backdrop for school safety. It begins with the commitment to safe school planning.
Paine: We know the principal is the key in a crisis, but the successful response starts long before a crisis. It’s really important the principal has a focus and understanding of student mental health in their building-in terms of both prevention and response to school safety issues. It’s essential schools screen and identify students who might be experiencing mental health problems, depression, suicide, or who pose risks to other students.
Canady: There are two things that automatically stick out to me. The principal should make sure there is a well-developed school safety team on campus. Of course we advocate for school resource officers (SROs), but we realize not all schools can have an SRO, and even if they have an SRO, it doesn’t automatically make for a safe campus. SROs are part of a larger school safety concept-part of a school safety team that is vitally important and that every principal should at least put some resources toward. In addition, whether there’s an SRO in the building or not, principals should be very intentional about partnering with public safety, both police and fire. So, for principals, we advocate a two-pronged approach: developing a school safety team and intentionally interacting with police and fire.
The School Safety Team
Levin-Epstein: Let’s figure out who should be on this school safety team. Ron, if you’re a principal and putting together a school safety team, who’s on it?
Stephens: In terms of membership, you certainly want to look at all the first responder agencies in your local community, so in a lot of ways your team is going to be customized based upon your community’s network and organization. You’re going to want to deal with people like your fire department, your paramedics, local hospitals, your office of emergency services, other county and state officials, and your faith community. Clearly that’s the beginning.
Paine: It’s important the school safety team include the principal, mental health professionals such as a school psychologist and counselor, and a district safety person like an SRO. One of the things I’ve done in my career as a crisis responder is to be a first responder to Thurston High School in Springfield, OR, when we had a school shooting in 1998. We really found the prior training and coordination that high school staff had with their community responders before that event invaluable. They had [training] exercises with the police department and with the local hospital.
Canady: As a former SRO, I enjoyed having school nurses as part of the team as well as having social workers, and even to some degree students. I think we forget sometimes what a valuable resource students are in terms of school safety. So, those are some of the folks who I think definitely belong on the team.
Paine: We also want to make sure our classified employees, such as custodians and front office staff, are part of the planning and response.
Stephens: Yes, there are many people that are part of the team. It’s interesting to look at some of the changing legislation that is emerging across the country. For instance, in California, every [state] employee has now been identified as a potential member of the crisis team. They may not be involved in the crisis planning and preparation, but all staff members should be. In New Jersey, they now mandate more than simple fire drills. They require different kinds of emergency drills that may include active shooter drills, shelter-in-place drills, weather-related hazards, explosive devices, and the like.
Levin-Epstein: Are states increasingly mandating crisis-planning drills?
Stephens: No question about it.
Paine: Historically we focused on fire drills as the main drill; I really see that’s expanded now to multiple types of lockdown drills, various types of evacuations, and shelter-in-place [drills]. The principal needs to be aware of all of those different types of drills and be the leader in getting the staff training and also practice. It’s so important these things are practiced multiple times a year, just like fire drills. NASP and NASRO recently released guidelines on armed-assailant drills for schools, which have specific suggestions for principals. These documents are on the NASP website and available to the public (see Resources, page 29).
Canady: We’re certainly seeing more of that, too, in terms of “active shooter drills,” but one of the things we’re also seeing is some debate and at times, controversy, about [how] we go from lockdown drills to more options-based drills.
Law Enforcement Presence
Levin-Epstein: So, let’s ask directly: Should there be a law enforcement officer at every secondary school in the United States?
Canady: I represent the National Association of School Resource Officers, what do you think I’m going to say? But I want to make sure that I’m clear in saying this: I only say “yes” if three things are in place. First of all, that the school district and law enforcement agency are in a collaborative effort together and there is a memorandum of understanding that connects them together. Secondly, that officers who serve on that campus are properly selected. And third, that they are properly trained to work on a school campus. Without those three things, the program is going to have a really difficult time succeeding. So I say, yes, in the answer to your question, but with those three items in place. In other words, if you thought of that as a three-legged stool, everything has to be in place.
Paine: From my viewpoint, when the Thurston shooting happened we didn’t have SROs in any of our schools. What I’ve seen over the 17 years since that event has been an evolution of how those resource officers work. I would also agree that it’s very valuable for them to be there, primarily because they can be the eyes and ears in prevention.
Stephens: The SRO is a key player on the safe school team, and my take is it’s important for school officials to let their community know why SROs are being brought to school, because there’s still that stigma-not as much today as there was maybe 10 or 15 years ago-but oftentimes parents wonder, “what’s wrong with the school if an SRO has to be on campus?” But they’re a great resource to students and to school officials; they’re so critical to your threat assessment team.
Levin-Epstein: Are there examples among secondary schools that have developed model school safety plans?
Paine: If you look on the National Association of School Psychologists’ website you will find “A Framework for Safe and Successful Schools.” This document, which you mentioned Michael, is a specific guide to crisis planning for schools. NASP has also developed PREPaRE, an evidence-based training curriculum for schools. The program links ongoing school safety to crisis preparedness and emergency response. This all goes back to the importance of preparation and training.
Stephens: I want to place this point in perspective. Many of these successes may not be known because we have never been very good about measuring prevention, yet we know that many of these school law enforcement partnerships have prevented several serious incidents from ever occurring. And the other part of this is to take some degree of care in not placing the full responsibility for crime prevention on the education community. Schools cannot prevent or stop all crime, and they should not be compelled to insure against safety.
Paine: One of the other statistics the Centers for Disease Control put out is that the odds of a young person ages 5-18 being a victim of a homicide at a school or on their way to school is one in 2.5 million. So it’s a small risk.
Levin-Epstein: Are there lessons we can learn from school safety breaches that could lessen the impact, lessen the injuries, lessen the deaths that occur?
Canady: In the event of an active shooter … we can’t wait for that problem to settle down, in other words, for us to circle the wagons and work on a tactical solution to this. It’s a different kind of tactic. We have to respond to the ongoing situation. I think a good end result of that was in the Arapahoe shooting out in Colorado year before last where one of our NASRO members who is an SRO there responded directly to the shooter to help end that situation.
Paine: The Sandy Hook Advisory Commission studied that shooting extensively and released their report in March of this year. As they studied not only their own shooting, but other shootings, they found that putting locks on interior doors of the schools that lock from the inside of the classroom is one of the least expensive and most effective deterrents when there is an active shooter in the building. According to this study, no one has been killed or wounded in a locked classroom.
Stephens: There have been several lessons that have been learned. First, after Sandy Hook the big issue on my agenda is “self-reliance” because most of the shootings take place in a matter of minutes, and if you can have the rapid response with the SRO on campus, my take is that gives you a great advantage.
Michael Levin-Epstein is the senior editor of Principal Leadership.