In the wake of the tragic Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting it comes as no surprise that school security has become a constant topic of discussion. The political discourse has centered on the topic of gun control. Gov. Cuomo recently signed a gun control law, touted to have the toughest restrictions in the country. Similarly, President Obama has begun pushing a package of gun regulation initiatives at the federal level. These may very well be important pieces to the greater issue of school security, but many educators and school administrators around the country already realize the expansive array of topics that comprehensive safety and wellbeing truly entail. Recently many educators have signed an open letter on gun violence, which can be found at http://hosagv.org/. Personally, I have been thinking about both the safety procedures and the types of safety and health curriculum that schools can implement to better protect students. The more I think about these issues the less I am convinced that a one-size-fits-all approach can truly work.
When discussing institutional school safety, it is important to differentiate between general safety procedures versus crisis management plans. The former deals with the daily norms used on school campuses and the latter deals with pre-scripted immediate reactions to emergency situations. When thinking about daily procedures I believe context plays an important role in finding the right balance between providing an open and warm educational environment while ensuring order and security from worldly dangers. The context of each school’s community and environment may mean that necessary precautions at one school might be construed as grave oppressive missteps in another.
In graduate school, I interned at a school that kept every door locked mainly because the school was located adjacent to several busy storefronts in a high traffic area. Since these students lived in New York City building complexes and were used to having to buzz into buildings, they were not disturbed by this locked-door procedure. My many months of interning left no doubt in my mind that the school was a safe and nurturing place. Yet before graduate school, I worked at a school that had a long-standing tradition of supporting students’ independent exploration of the over 200 acres of campus property. Locking all the doors would have greatly changed the school culture. But the school did have video cameras monitoring of all the entrances and exits. In this particular instance both institutions have arrived at an acceptable norm that accounts for the realities of their environment, while also fostering welcome environments.
Crisis plans may include a school’s outreach to emergency responders, its lockdown procedure, or its communication protocol to parents and guardians. It seems clear that the environment and make-up of a school community would have to dictate individual crisis plans. The response time of first responders affect calculations of other needed campus safeguards. I personally have never worked in a school environment where the administration felt comfortable having security personnel patrol the halls of the school with guns. And even after the latest of these horrible school tragedies I don’t believe that arming school personnel with lethal weapons is the right direction to go. But maybe a non-lethal alternative like Tasers might be more acceptable. If the daily schedule allows students to have free periods or to go off campus, then any lockdown plan would have to accommodate the fact that all students might not be in a classroom when an emergency erupts. School communication protocols to guardians should adapt to ensure that information is getting to parents as quickly as possible. That might mean blast emails, or automated calls to the child’s home or guardians’ workplace.
Yet, I think it is also vitally important to focus on how schools are educating our students on the issues of physical and mental health, even as schools take the necessary steps to create, adapt, or simply reaffirm their current safety protocols and crisis management plans in the context of their environments. Providing age appropriate instruction positions students to make individual choices that may have personal and group benefits when they’re faced with real-life situations. As cliché as it may sound, knowledge is empowering and in a world where information is plentiful and often unmonitored, schools must do their part to battle misinformation. This might occur in several forms or in combination. Though a non-exhaustive list, it seems to me that directed and informative conversations, structured training sessions, and workshops are all viable options.
These trainings need to address potential physical and mental health risks. News reports in the aftermath of Sandy Hook detailed how even the youngest elementary school students knew the serious danger the intruder posed. I will not delve into the appropriateness of violent video games or movies but will take a moment to point out that many young children have direct access to these materials and subsequently provide indirect access to their peers. Schools should take an active role in the responsible dissemination of information on the dangers of intruders, real-life weapons, and other hazards. It is equally important that students develop an understanding of mental health issues. This is a difficult task given the large amounts of misinformation and stigma often associated with mental health issues and, as with all education, the curriculum must be age-appropriate. Yet I would venture to guess that even our youngest students deal with instances of personal emotional issues or those of their friends, and these struggles often occur under the radar of teacher and administrator attention.
I am not stating that students should be tasked with solving or even diagnosing mental health issues. I do think that increasing awareness and providing safe outlets for students to share potential concerns should be part of any full-spectrum approach to protecting school age students. My intention behind placing an explicit focus on the need to strengthen widespread understanding of mental health issues extends beyond the specific case of Sandy Hook. I do not claim to know enough about this particular incident to state the role mental health issues shaped the outcomes of the events of December 14, 2012. But as an educator I do know that alerting proper personnel about mental health issues adds another layer of protection to prevent students from inflicting harm on themselves or others.
The issue of school safety is complex, and even though government action may help increase security, I believe that taking into account context or school-system situation plays a vital role in ensuring security. I certainly do not claim to have all the answers. Frankly, I don’t claim to be the authority on even the slivers of the issue that I tackled in this short piece. But I would love to read feedback and hope this piece may start a string of conversations around the issue.