Assess Your School’s Safety Plan
As we recalibrate priorities beyond the COVID-19 pandemic, principals have increased their attention to emotional safety and fostering a sense of belonging for students and staff. Not to be forgotten, however, is the need to make our schools physically safe, secure, and ready to respond when the unexpected arises.
Students and staff throughout the U.S. take part in a variety of drills as a part of the typical onboarding of a new school year. An October 2022 report from the Education Commission of the States found that 45 states and the District of Columbia outline requirements for school safety plans in state statutes and policies. But rules about which entity should take the lead on the plan, whether law enforcement should be involved, and how often plans should be reviewed vary.
Such variations exist because a one-size-fits-all approach can’t meet the needs of the many contextual landscapes in which schools exist. Despite differences in geographic region, population density, socioeconomic diversity, political leanings, and financial health, there is one unifying truth: We want to provide the very best for our students. And although school leaders are perhaps most aware of the factors impacting their schools, the heavy lift of shoring up school safety shouldn’t be theirs alone.
Leveling Up School Safety
Continuous improvement is a goal of the U.S. education system, but most school administrators are given the same safety plans and flowcharts to review and execute year after year. What might it look like to apply a continuous improvement process to school safety? A free resource from Safe and Sound Schools, the “Straight-A Safety Toolkits” (bit.ly/3P3WPFN), walks leaders through three phases for improving school safety; the first is to “Assess” your school team.
Engaging with the community and stakeholders is a core practice for school leaders seeking to build strong cultures, empower others, and optimize systems to focus on what matters most. Before even assessing the school safety system, the toolkit encourages leaders to assess who is on the school safety team. In order to build a comprehensive plan, it is advantageous—if not critical—to engage multiple perspectives. Safe and Sound Schools suggests the inclusion of members from three groups for your school safety team: school personnel, public safety, and community members.
Depending on state and local guidance, your school safety team might already include school personnel. Administrators, teacher leaders, mental health and health staff, and facilities and maintenance staff might not only be involved in the review of safety plans, but might also play an assigned role in emergency plans and protocols. Similarly, public safety members might take part in monitoring drills, reviewing the safety plan, and training.
Safe and Sound Schools encourages leaders to engage students, caregivers, neighbors, and other community leaders in school safety planning. Consider how to capture from your school’s PTA/PTO, afterschool programs, coaches, front office staff, kitchen staff, cafeteria workers, and even bus drivers. Even the most attuned school leaders have blind spots; by intentionally including community members and other stakeholders on the school safety team, you can be better equipped to hear different perspectives and uncover potential problems and solutions in developing a more comprehensive plan.
From Compliance to Curiosity
Safeguarding schools will continue to be a priority for school leaders everywhere. It’s a protective instinct that’s also seen from parents and community members who want to help when a crisis strikes. It is not always possible to distribute leadership in the moment of need, but if we can proactively engage the broader community, it will strengthen systems of safety.
Start now by moving past the required checklist of protocols and investing time in leveling up your system. Reflect on who’s on your school’s safety team and who needs an invitation to the table. Once you’ve built out a team, you can start to guide conversation, action, and continuous improvement.
Jessica Hutchison is principal of Avoca West Elementary School in Glenview, Illinois.