Schools have a legal obligation to take reasonable steps to protect students against reasonably foreseeable acts of violence, kidnapping, sexual abuse, and other safety and security threats. Although there is no one-size-fits-all solution, here are some of the important considerations for schools in providing a safe and secure environment for their students:
The circumstances that lead to violence are complex and far ranging, often the culmination of months and years of individual experiences. School climate refers to the quality of school life. Developing students with strong character who are connected to their peers, educators, and communities in meaningful ways can improve school climate and prevent violence from occurring. Research suggests that a positive school climate can lead to a significant decrease in the likelihood of crime, aggression, and violent behavior.
Schools and districts should implement social, emotional, and behavioral support systems to create a climate that supports and responds to student behavior. School leaders can make character development a priority by supporting practices in the classroom and school, as well as collaborating with families and community organizations.
Threat Assessment and Reporting
It is important for school officials, teachers, and students to identify and address threatening or concerning behaviors before they lead to violence. Reporting on a variety of concerning student behaviors and other suspicious activities provides authorities and school personnel with the information they need to stop violence before it occurs.
A 2008 study showed that, prior to an act of violence, most attackers behaved in a way that made others concerned, and other people knew about the attacker’s plan. Having a threat assessment program, or a multidisciplinary group process, to evaluate these reports can significantly reduce violence, including mass casualty attacks.
Schools should establish a reporting system that is continually monitored and allows anonymous reporting. Districts and schools should establish multidisciplinary teams and threat assessment programs to assess each report and respond to threats of violence and other concerning behavior.
Families and communities expect schools to keep their children safe from a range of emergency events, like crime, natural disasters, and accidents. Emergencies can happen at any time, and planning for different emergencies can be challenging for schools.
A key component of emergency planning is creating an Emergency Operations Plan (school EOP), or a document that outlines how a school will prepare, respond, and recover from an emergency.
Every district or school should develop and implement comprehensive school EOPs that describe the actions that students, teachers, and school staff should take before, during, and after emergency events, and everyone should have a common understanding of what will be expected of them. Any reduction of time between the beginning and end of an incident can save lives.
Physical security measures can mitigate external threats and reduce the amount of harm inflicted if incidents occur. Conducting a site assessment and developing building security plans can identify existing vulnerabilities and enhance overall school security.
Intruders often exploit vulnerabilities in the school’s physical security, like entering the building or classrooms through doors that are not secured or monitored. Most schools—even those with older floor plans or infrastructure— have a way to “design in” layers of security, starting with controlling access and working inward to secure classrooms and other internal spaces.
Schools can reduce the likelihood that harm is caused by completing a site assessment that evaluates current security practices and identifies options for preventing and protecting against safety incidents. Schools should also establish a team and identify a lead to oversee security efforts and engage district and school staff, students, parents, and first responders.
Training, Exercises, and Drills
Training teaches staff and faculty about the policies, procedures, roles, and responsibilities in their school’s Emergency Operations Plan (school EOP). It also gives them the information they need to train their students on emergency procedures. Tabletop exercises allow schools to discuss their plans, policies, and procedures in an emergency scenario. Drills provide everyone with the chance to practice the actions they will take before, during, and after an emergency. Training and exercises are an essential component of school safety plans.
One way to prepare for emergency situations is to incorporate real-world scenarios or tabletop exercises into school safety training. During tabletop exercises participants discuss emergency policies and procedures, and their roles and responsibilities before, during, and after an emergency scenario. This helps improve performance during an actual incident.
Schools should encourage safety training for the entire school community and regularly review training protocols to ensure that everyone is prepared to respond to incidents. Schools should reinforce training through drills and tabletop exercises that are appropriate for the school’s culture, and students and staff should practice their responses on a regular basis.
School Security Personnel
Many schools have safety teams or a group of people who are dedicated to developing strategies to improve school safety. School safety programs are the most effective when the team is multi-disciplinary and takes a collaborative approach to planning for safety, security, and emergency management. Law enforcement, school resource officers (SRO), or security personnel can be invaluable resources to the team because of their specialized knowledge in recognizing building security concerns and mitigating violent situations.
SROs, who are typically sworn law enforcement officers, and school safety officers (SSO), who are typically non-sworn school security staff, have been trained to act as a first line of defense and respond to acts of violence. Their presence in schools allows them to build relationships with students that can prevent or mitigate school violence.
If you are considering working with an SRO or SSO, the entire school community should be educated about their role. Schools should also communicate how the SRO or SSO fits into the school’s overall safety strategy, as well as their roles and responsibilities.
Bullying and Cyberbullying
Bullying and cyberbullying threatens students’ physical and emotional safety and can impact their social and academic success at school. There are a number of reasons behind school violence; in some cases, being the victim of bullying could play a contributing role.
In a 2017 study about bullying, 20 percent of students aged 12-18 said they were bullied at school. Thirty-four percent of youth report being a victim of cyberbullying in their lifetime. Bullying is associated with negative outcomes for those who are bullied, including substance use, suicide, and impacts on physical and mental health.
Everyone at school can work together to create an environment where bullying is not acceptable. Districts and schools should adopt policies to help prevent bullying and cyberbullying, such as school climate initiatives and support for digital citizenship and positive character development. Procedures for monitoring student behavior in school and online can help schools identify at-risk behaviors and provide interventions before they create safety issues.
Students often come to school with complex physical and mental health concerns or social service needs. Access to mental health services helps to create a positive school climate, prevents worsening of mental health conditions, and leads to better outcomes for students.
Mental health challenges are common among students. According to the National Research Council and Institute of Medicine, up to 1 in 5 children living in the United States experience a mental disorder every year. Symptoms often start in early childhood, although some may develop during the teenage years.
By supporting students who are experiencing mental health challenges, schools can help foster a sense of safety and promote better academic and behavioral outcomes. Providing access to mental health services can reduce mental, emotional, and behavioral difficulties with students at risk.
Schools are continuously reacting to incidents. Most incidents are small, but some events, like tragic acts of violence, have a larger impact and may disrupt the worldview of students, staff, and family members. Schools and districts can plan for how they will recover from incidents before they occur, which can make the recovery process quicker and more effective.
To address the wide range of needs that are linked to the aftermath of incidents at school, safety teams should ask themselves questions like: how do we address the counseling needs of students, staff, and families? Who has the authority to close and reopen the school? Does the school know how to reunify parents and students? Having answers to questions like these can help schools rebound more quickly.
Districts and schools should have an overall strategy for academic, physical, fiscal, and emotional recovery, which includes knowing what to do and how to support the community. Successful recovery addresses the needs that emerge after an incident and having a plan can mean recovery is more effective and timelier.