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Risk to Schools - A Perspective for School Leaders

In the wake of the most recent school violence in Seattle this past week, the unimaginable fears of many parents, students, staff and faculty were once again realized. Unfortunately, the tragic episode at Marysville-Pilchuck High School is only one of more than 30 school shootings since the unthinkable Sandy Hook Elementary School event of December 14, 2012.

So have school shootings become an epidemic? Is this the single biggest threat to our school aged children? Does this require laser focus from school leaders?

It is a fact that hundreds of children have been hurt or killed in school related violence over the years. It is clearly something we cannot ignore. But an active shooter is not the only – nor is it the most likely – threat to our school aged children.

Parents expect their children to be safe at school and, statistically, they are. Yet, while there are risks to students which are more likely to occur, an active shooter incident causes such grief, such shock, such despair that it becomes impossible for many to be able to objectively view the other risks our children face. The media will endlessly replay the horror, will dig as deep as possible, will make illogical connections and will report any "fact" as true. The actual truth of the it developed... how it it it may have been diffused before it happened...may be forever lost.

The problem is then that the perception of parents becomes their reality. Understandable paranoia at the thought of losing a child to violence clouds objectivity. They may conclude that their child is the next potential victim and somehow in imminent danger. All of this raises the cry from many for armed guards in schools, better gun control laws, metal detectors at entrances, and similar "solutions" which they believe should be applied universally. And you, the school leader, are now on the hot seat.

School administrators and officials need to look holistically and objectively at the safety of the children and to help parents do the same. Parents need to know that the place they send their children each day is safe and that the school is prepared to prevent tragic acts. Schools need provide those assurances in visible and specific ways.

So, as a school leader, how do you make your environment as safe as possible and help provide parents the confidence they need? It requires that you look at the broad spectrum of risks and you make actionable plans to address them.

  • Create programs and policies that support a safe school

Start with a policy that communicates your school will be a safe place for students, staff, faculty and visitors. Develop a zero tolerance policy for weapons or violence. Communicate with your faculty and staff as well as parents about what you are doing to make your school safe. Be willing to listen to all concerns and be prepared to provide thoughtful responses. Publically commit to the creation of detection and intervention programs to identify kids at risk. Actively solicit the involvement of parents in the process of making the school a secure and safe environment.

  • Make sure your plans address both the consequence and the root causes

Guns have no place in schools. Period. You need to be unequivocal about that fact in your school. However, stopping them from entering your school can be a tough problem. So perhaps the reason guns are brought to school is a better place to start. An effective detection and intervention program for students who may be at emotional or psychological risk is critical. Bullying, for example, is one of the most common risks to our kids. Left unaddressed it can certainly lead to escalating acts of violence or retaliation - in both the short and long term. Remember - those who commit acts of school violence are often the bullied, not the bully! Make it safe for kids to reach out for help.

Beyond the violence, make sure that you understand the other risks to children while at school and that parents know you understand. Be transparent and be willing to take a stand about things that affect the safety of your students. Even though they rarely seem to raise the emotional barometer of parents; severe weather, contagious illness, building infrastructure failures and transportation are all risks that children may face while at school. Do you safety and security plans address these things? For example, did you know that from mid-August to October 17 Enterovirus D68 has been found in 825 people, almost all children? Or that according to the US DOT an average of 139 children each year are killed in school bus crashes. Do parents know what you were doing to proactively protect your students?

  • Get prepared and stay prepared.

As an Administrator or Official responsible for a school, you need to take a broad and unbiased survey of your operations and develop cost effective, threat appropriate and rational plans to meet your identified risks as well as a strong and clear communication plan for emergencies. You should consult security experts who can help facilitate the discussion and write the plans. Then, once your school security and safety program has been developed, it needs to be tested regularly, drills need to be conducted so that students and teachers know when to use "muscle memory" and when to make on the fly decisions and plans must be reviewed frequently to ensure they are up to date. Should the unfortunate - or the unthinkable - happen, your advanced preparation may be the difference between life and death.

The bottom line is this…a security program designed to help schools identify and manage both their common and unique risks is essential to a creating both the perception and the reality of a safe school environment.

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