Guest post by Bill Ziegler
Without a doubt, the most pressing issue in schools today is safety. It seems like a week can’t go by without hearing about a school shooting or someone talking about school safety fears. The Washington Post recently reported a startling statistic that indicated more students have died in school shootings in 2018 than U.S. military members killed during deployment this year. Hardly a day goes by in school when I’m not thinking, “What would I do if shots went off here?” How can principals take action to protect our school community? Here are seven strategies to help keep your school safer.
PRIORITIZE safety at all times. Our society ebbs and flows in regard to the focus on school safety. So naturally when the headlines subside, we tend to stop growing, stretching, and working to improve our school safety plan. However, school leaders must intentionally make safety the priority. Conducting monthly school safety drills, constantly assessing campus safety protocols, securing the school before, during, and after school, and tracking down every threat is critical to a continued focus on safety. I attended and became certified in ALICE training (alert, lockdown, inform, counter, evacuate) which is put on by our state police. This intense and informative training deepened my understanding of school safety and empowered me to work with our school and district team to hone our safety plans.
COMMUNICATE the importance of reporting suspicious behaviors or any concerns. This may require answering late-night calls from a concerned parent or responding to a weekend social media post, but being open and responsive goes a long way. To promote communication, start with educating the school community on what to do when they have a safety concern. At Pottsgrove High School, we share a video called “Pottsgrove Is a Family That Cares.” Another strategy is to speak with students in a small-group setting. Our physical education teachers walk all students to our rally points and I am on hand to answer students’ questions regarding school safety, which helps to reinforce the message that we are all responsible for the safety of our school.
ADVOCATE for safety in your school, district, and community. This may mean submitting requests to your district office for support, training, or resources. Or, it could be searching for grants to fund resources and programming for school safety. DonorsChoose.org is an excellent resource. Years ago, our school received a grant to begin a school resource officer (SRO) program to provide us with a police officer during school hours. NASRO (National Association of School Resource Officers) is another great resource to learn more about SROs. Advocating also requires school leaders to lobby with legislators to support laws that strengthen school safety. The NASSP Policy & Advocacy Center is an excellent resource to increase your voice on Capitol Hill and with your local representatives.
RELATE to students and give them a voice. Creating a school culture where every student feels connected to their peers, cared for by an adult in the school, and valued as an integral member of the community goes a long way in keeping your school safe. Cultivating this positive culture starts with listening to our students. One way to give students a voice is to conduct a survey to assess attitudes about climate and culture, which can alert school leaders to issues needing attention. Another way we try to relate is through a video that emphasizes the value of our students: “No Place for Hate at Pottsgrove High School.” One middle school principal I know does the Dot Project. In the staff room is a picture of each student. Staff members put a dot on pictures of students they know and for whom they can share details about their involvement, personality, and connections. The students with few or no dots will receive extra attention as staff intentionally focuses on connecting with them.
INNOVATE and leverage technology to our advantage. For instance, our district provides all school leaders immediate reports if students search, email, or use keywords on any school device that could be a safety issue. All school leaders in the district receive an immediate text message if 911 is called from any phone in the district. This allows us to respond quickly and en masse so we can support the issue at hand. Next year, our school is looking to use a cell phone reporting system to report any school safety concerns. And check out this video about a school in New York that uses technology to address bullying and other behavioral issues.
COLLABORATE and expand your school safety team. Though school safety is your number one responsibility as principal, it is not an obligation that you bear alone. There is strength in collaboration. Our district police chief organizes a monthly Intel Sharing Meeting to coordinate the partnership between school, police, juvenile probation, children youth services, and more. In addition, our assistant superintendent of schools, Dr. Robert Harney, organizes a quarterly School Safety Partnership meeting to bring together police, school board members, teachers, principals, community members, and anyone interested in improving safety. Not only have these meetings been instrumental in improving our safety programming and planning, they also have widened the reach of those involved in and responsible for school safety.
NAVIGATE the tumultuous waters of school safety. As violent attacks continue to evolve, school safety is only going to get more complicated. For example, during the Parkland tragedy, the shooter pulled the fire alarm to bring as many people into his range as possible. Since that incident, we have changed our fire drill procedures. We now notify the staff and students about the drill by announcing that this is only a drill and requiring our faculty to check hallways before entering. These constant changes in attacks on schools require leaders to attend professional learning, participate in training drills, work with law enforcement, and continue to search for ways to keep schools on the cutting edge of safety.
Dangerous times call for courageous leaders who are willing to take a stand for their students, staff, parents, and community. This work is not easy, but it is necessary. You are not alone in this mission. NASSP is here to equip, encourage, and empower you to lead safety in your schools.
What are your school safety best practices?
Bill Ziegler, EdD, is the principal of Pottsgrove High School in Pottstown, PA. He was a 2015 NASSP Digital Principal of the Year and the 2016 Pennsylvania Principal of the Year. Ziegler is the host of “Lead the Way: A Podcast for School Leaders”; each episode is five minutes or less and works to encourage, equip, and empower school leaders. He is also the co-author of Future Focused Leaders: Relate, Innovate, and Invigorate for Real Educational Change. Follow him on Twitter @drbillziegler.