School Safety: Strategies for Educators

School Safety: Strategies for Educators
What makes us safer? Some of the best school safety measures actually involve low-cost and no-cost practices that are simple and effective. In this interview, Michael Dorn of Safe Havens International shares practical strategies you can put to use right away:

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Interview highlights

Active Supervising in Close Proximity
[4:21] As far as some simple things, the biggest thing that we find, that we focus on, that I'll give for an example for teachers and it's actually true for all three groups you mentioned, but we'll get in context with the teacher, is improving student supervision is the most powerful and effective single technique, if I didn't limit it to one, to reduce risk of death from almost anything you can think of. From accidents, medical emergencies, natural disasters like tornado, fire or acts of violence such as an active shooting or terrorism.

So focusing on trying to do the best that you can, as constantly as you possibly can to keep line of sight with your students and being within earshot and be close enough to your students. For example, if you're supervising on an outdoor area, be close enough to hear, see, and act to prevent bad things from happening. That would be my first piece of advice if you're a teacher.

Parking Lot Safety
[5:16] Now, for building principals, I'm going to use an extension of that, and I'm going to say one that we would like to see you do is to have your local police or your state police have a traffic experienced officer come out, and look at your morning arrival and afternoon dismissal procedures. Look at how you supervise your students, and the flow of people and vehicles because the number one trackable cause of death, in other words the number one cause of death that we actually have reliable data for is actually the type of...that we've seen recently, several examples of, this week a child killed in a school parking lot in front of their parent who witnessed them being run over a few weeks ago in Indiana. Principal killed, hit by a school bus in her parking lot. That's 525 deaths in the last 15-year reporting period in contrast to 62 people killed by active shooters for our country during the same 15-year period of time.
So take a minute, and let's evaluate traffic safety and supervision of students at those critical time periods in the morning and afternoon.

Building Relationships
[7:26] I love the emphasis on supervision and being out and around. And I'm going to jump in and add one more thought to that. And the spinoff of that that fits hand in hand with supervision is just the relationship piece — have relationships with the students, have relationships with the police and community members. And that whole visibility is so strong in terms of deterring bad things from happening; so great practical ideas.

Arapahoe High School Shooting Post-Incident Review
[8:22]… the Littleton Public School System had 12 of our analysts do an evaluation of an active shooter event they had in 2013. And it's amazing how many lives were saved by their emergency preparedness. They were definitely in the top flight in that arena. And they had a better threat evaluation process than the vast majority of public and non-public and charter schools that we've worked with around the United States. But they did have a child murdered after they had done a threat assessment. And so we've got a complete report, the details, what went well, what was in place, it was good. And the Littleton Public Schools want to share that to people.

Multidisciplinary Approach
[9:01] But the first thing is making sure that you have a multidisciplinary approach. And by multidisciplinary, what has been most effective since it was first used to stop a planned school shooting in the early 1990s in my school system and stopped quite a few actually after that, because I worked in a very high-risk setting. We were just ranked one of the 10 highest crime cities in America just recently. And so we had a pretty high threat level, but we had tremendous success by having a school district police officer which might be a local police officer, a school resource officer in other communities, and mental health professional and an administrator, all three of those disciplines represented in the assessment team.

Connect With Students
[9:55] As to the teaching staff, I would say go back to what you mentioned earlier about, Randy, that close connection to students. Not just knowing their name but knowing who they are and developing a sense of trust where they will come forward to you and talk to you, that's something that's extremely important for every school employee — the teacher, the custodian, front office, staff member, to have that connection, because it's a lot harder than a lot of people realize for students to come forward with the information.

What Can You Do at the District Level
[10:25] At the district level, one thing I would say is, is your process defined in writing, backed up by formal training that you can document? If you look at the Littleton case, they went far above what most districts have in place. But some things didn't come through in the application step. So even though they were well ahead of most of our much larger districts, they had a gap there which they've moved to address by being so open to external review like this. But you want to make sure that the process that you think you have in place is actually what's going on, that you actually have quality controls in place and district level review for the assessments that are done at the building level, with both building and sometimes district and maybe even community personnel.

The Value of Walking Through Emergency Procedures and De-Escalation
[13:45] And so I'm going to take the more typical types of assaults that we see in the school setting and walk through some things very quickly. The first is that connectivity we've talked about does what many people that might hurt you reduce the likelihood that they will attack you. It's harder to attack people that you like and especially respect. But if the level of the teacher, the person, the field, the concept of pattern matching and recognition is very, very powerful, it's evidence-based. And in some, it's noticing behaviors that are incongruent for the people, the context and the setting. So your awareness of students and other staff…and when you notice that something doesn't feel right, don't just ignore it. Be aware of what's going on around you.

Now, the next thing we see is when, let's say it gets to that point where we've got the irate individual in the office or at a classroom, or in the school bus driver's door. And now you've got somebody...we teach people. When you've got people yelling and screaming, using profanity, if they are intoxicated or under the effects of drugs or maybe improperly medicated, what if they've got exhibiting signs of emotional...they're not emotionally in control of themselves, those can be indicators that things could escalate to a point where it's dangerous, and that's why we're so very impressed with your training because we've seen and we've got many clients who've got data to back up.

And one that comes to mind is John Heiderscheidt from U-46 District on the outskirts of Chicago. They've had a dramatic reduction in violence towards staff, expulsions of students, through de-escalation training that you offer so that we can now calm the situation down so it doesn't escalate to a point where somebody might be harmed. Now beyond that, the next thing we could caution people is that we need to be able to implement a variety of protective actions.

If that doesn't work or things happen too quickly for that, being able to implement on your own without direction from a building principal…if you're a teacher or building principal not having to confer with somebody at district's office…being able to implement emergency protective actions. The most important ones are room clear, clearing out a room of students and staff quickly, not evacuating a whole building, but clear out a classroom, auditorium or lunchroom. Reverse evacuation, to get back into a building quickly if there's danger outside. Of course, lock down, fire evacuation, shelter for severe weather. If you know those emergency procedures and you think about them as we said at the beginning of this little segment, you're a lot faster and more accurate at applying those when they're appropriate in an emergency.

Avoid Making the School Look Like a Prison
[18:55]…there's a lot of research to show if you put people in an institutional setting like a prison that you can create some very negative outcomes from that. So while we're doing some things we need to for security, let's make sure we spend some money on artwork. Let's look at the flooring schemes, let's look at paint colors, murals, artwork. You want the school to look in every area — restrooms, hallways, stairwells — like a school, not like a jail or a prison. And it can be something that's simple. It doesn't have to take barbed wire or tall fences. It can be just the wrong color choice.

So if you look at the hallways in your school and it reminds you of a jail or prison, that's not good.

Good Access Control and Visitor Management
[19:35] So with that as an important backdrop, creating good access control, getting staff to understand how very dangerous it can be just to not keep exterior doors secured. Getting staff to understand that all adults in a building on normal school day, every administrator, staff member, needs to wear a photo ID. And if you don't require that and you don't require visitors to come in to be ID-ed with time-sensitive badges, I can assure you, and I've got a lot of clients who will back this up, we can come to your elementary school and leave with a child typically within 10 minutes more than 90% of the time.

And that's because we're not creating the structure that people know who belongs and who doesn't. So good access control, good visitor management.

Options-Based Active Shooter Training Programs
[25:09] There's a number of these programs. It's called the Options Based Active Shooter Training Programs. We are deeply concerned. We know there are millions of dollars' worth of staff injuries every year. We had $1 million in medical bills just for one insurance carrier paid out for injuries that occurred in a 22-month time span for one active shooter training program just for the State of Iowa.

We've got active litigation right now for some of these programs. None of these programs, by the way, have been validated it's effective. There is no testing and evaluation to show that any active shooter training program is effective. So we urge caution.

School Bullying
[30:15] First, to reiterate two things that you and I have talked about — the student supervision and close connection. To me, those are a strong foundation. They will reduce the frequency and intensity of at least bullying that occurs on school property. But they'll also make it more likely that a child reaches out to help. I know when I was severely bullied…it's a lot harder for me to talk about being bullied than it is actually to talk about when I was raped as a young boy. I know that may sound strange to people. My experiences may not reflect those of others, but I know the bullying that I experienced was just extremely traumatic.

And so I think most people don't know how hard it is for a child to come forward. So first of all, be that person that can come to be accessible to them. And then next for the teacher, take the time to learn the signs and indications of bullying. That's, I think, a big one, is you know the definition of bullying and know what the indicators are.

How to Answer the Question: How Safe Is This School?
[31:35] Educators and teachers that I know, administrators that I've worked with are constantly being asked by parents and community members questions such as, "Well, how safe is your school? How safe are my children that attend your local school? What are you doing at your school to keep students safe?" Can you share a few thoughts for teachers, principals that they can tell parents to reassure them that their children are in a physically and emotionally safe place and space for the six, seven hours a day at elementary schools and so many more hours in that at the secondary schools?

Sure. And it's a really good question. The answer that I'm going to give may be a little surprising why I think it's so important. But there are a couple of reasons. The first thing is don't react with a normal gut reaction. A lot of educators would feel to say, "Our school is a safe school. We do this, we do this. Your child is safe here." First of all, that can cause some very significant liability concerns if you're ever litigated for a safety event which can happen in the best run of schools.
Secondly, it doesn't bear credibility to the average person when we say that. So what I tell people to say and what we always say is, "Look, there's a certain amount of risk anywhere and our school is no different from that. We have taken what we feel are significant measures to enhance safety of your child. Here are some things we have done." And ask the person, "What do you think we should do? Do you have any suggestions?" And say, "We're not saying we're going to do them, but we'd like to hear you out."

That type of dialogue in my experience has been the most effective. I've seen a lot of school officials lose a lot of credibility overreaching with statements about the level of safety they have. And it's been very problematic.

Have an Assessment Done Before You Make Big Changes
[36:45] So take the time to learn what your risks are. And one of the best ways for a district or a school, an independent school, or a non-public school, or charter school is to have a proper assessment done before you go making major changes. That's not cost-effective in our experience. We didn't just buy a bunch of things. So however you approach it, just make sure you tailor the solutions that you come up with to fit your situation and don't assume that just because another district across the state or another school across town does something, it's going to work just as well for you. It may, or it might not. It just depends on whether it's a good fit for your situation.

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