School Safety: A Principal’s Perspective

By Alleta Baltes
Communicator
November 2013, Volume 37, Issue 3

Over twenty years ago, a sheriff in Dubios, Wyoming, told me something startling: “I worry more about you administrators than I do fellow police officers. They have protection against the bad guy.”

We educators have always been told that working in an elementary school somehow protected us from violence. Our students are just young children! Video cameras and security entrances seemed reserved for high schools and middle schools. Still, I have always thought that because we deal with the public, we are vulnerable. Just a few years into my career in 1986, a former town marshal took 154 children and 13 adults hostage at Cokeville Elementary School in Cokeville, Wyoming. Now, in the wake of the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, suddenly educators have been forced to confront how vulnerable we all are to horrific violence.  

Are we principals prepared to keep our students safe?

Leveraging School Resource Officers

After the Sandy Hook tragedy, my state (Wyoming) tried to pass a law allowing citizens to carry guns in schools. The thought of multiple guns at sporting events, or in the hands of an upset parent at an IEP meeting, inspired members of the education community to write to legislators and stop this legislation for the time being. But, in other states, such as Utah, administrators and custodians are allowed to carry arms.

As a principal, I would prefer that school resource officers, rather than guns, appear in our schools. Our school district received the “model” award last summer at the National School Resource Officer conference. The school resource officers are hired through our city in an agreement with the district. Four elementary schools share one school resource officer, and he is there at least once per day, at various times, often walking the halls and visiting with children. His desk is near the front door of the school. Beyond running schools’ lock-down, stay-put, and fire drills, our officer assists in getting sick children home when we don’t have a current phone number for a family or if no one comes to pick up a child after school.

Children and parents see the officer as an assistant, counselor, and supporter. He goes on home visits with principals, social workers, or special education case managers, if needed. He is available to deal with difficult situations, such as homeless families, parents who are upset about discipline issues, and he works closely with the Department of Family Services for child welfare issues. Parents and guardians like having the officer available in the schools and on the playgrounds. There have been several “sticky” situations this year with parents or guardians, and merely his presence seems to make members of the public behave themselves and act respectfully toward staff.

Another added advantage is the close communication with our city police department. The school resource officer attends daily briefings and knows of drug use, violence, and other community issues happening in neighborhoods.

Shared district school resource officers are a wonderful thing, but I have concerns that they probably will not be at my school when a crisis occurs. Also, if Wyoming does pass a law allowing guns in schools, I would like armed administrators to be required to demonstrate that they can use the weapon accurately.

School Actions

In addition to the presence of a school resource officer, our school has also added a new vestibule in the front of the school. We’ve increased fortress-type security measures. For instance, I used to allow parents to go to the classrooms at the end of the day to pick up their children. Now, we walk the children outside, and parents pick students up there. Teachers are more accountable for each child’s departure, and writing detailed records at the end of the day of which students were picked up, which rode the bus, and which walked home.

Our parents have had to adjust to these changes. One long-term parent was very saddened that she could not talk after school to her child’s teacher, but she realized that she could speak to them outside instead (just not for nearly as long in cold Wyoming winters). As a whole, parents have been very thankful for these changes. They feel that the new vestibule provides more security for their children, even though Sandy Hook Elementary had a similar security entrance already.

The podcast NAESP has on school safety was a comfort to me when I listened to it. School shootings are still rare, compared to the number of schools. Our public needs reassurance that schools are still safe places to send their children, and parents need assurance that public schools are a safe place.

Lessons for Leaders

In our district, we have many administrators who are new to their role this year. I find myself wanting to warn them against overreacting when it comes to safety measures. Yet, at the same time, I want to explain to them how to react to dangerous situations.

  • Practice drills as if they are the real events, and insist your staff listen to you in a crisis, since you may have more information than they do. Feeling nervous when practicing drills is OK because you will be nervous if the real event happens.
  • Practice deep breathing, similar to what police officers do, to stay calm.
  • Attend trainings on how to handle your emotions during a crisis situation.
  • Be prepared to change your plans, and to be flexible with what needs done to keep your school safe.

Above all, remember that you do not have to give your life when someone wants to do harm. No one is expected to die a hero—I was told this years ago when I first became a principal.

By putting our best efforts into safety drills, crisis plans, and connections with our first responders, we’ll teach our children to read, and keep them safe as well.

Alleta Baltes is principal of Ashgrove Elementary, Riverton, Wyoming.

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