This can be one of the true stressors of childhood. A few days before your birthday and all eyes are on you. Everyone is tuned in to your needs and your wishes. It’s something that only comes once a year and the pressure of getting it all right starts to press down on your delicate shoulders. Determined you stand upright defying that invisible force as you declare what meal will be eaten regardless of anyone else’s preferences. An itinerary of who will participate and what activities will happen forms first in your mind then starts to take shape with each discussion between you and your mom. Months of subtly dropping hints in stores and eying inventory from catalogs start to penetrate the minds of your parents and you dare to hope…
My daughter, Emilie, loved birthdays. Every birthday, not just hers. It was not important if it was Madeline’s, Samantha’s, Mom and Dad’s or even Jesus’s birthday. Emilie realized and understood that birthday’s were a special time to celebrate each other—together. Her joy in honoring the lives of those closest to her was infectious. The effort she put into planning a fun and exciting birthday for her family members far surpassed the time and energy she put into her own. The thrill she genuinely expressed for others had the power to even make a 30th birthday party as enjoyable as a 6 year olds.
May 12th will mark the 5th year that Emilie will not be able to help us plan a party. Another year of not fretting what to request for dinner, who to invite or what presents to hope for. Five years later it is a punishing task to figure out how to best celebrate her life and what she means for our family. As her parents we are supposed to know her best and to be perfectly honest—we don’t anymore. We can’t anticipate what food she would like, what friends she would have and what presents she would want. Her twelve-year-old self would be a Ship of Theseus from the six-year-old we did know. Five years later she would still be Emilie, but almost every aspect of her from her likes, dislikes, friends, passions and even the cells in her body would be slowly replaced one by one with new ones.
So how do we celebrate the birth of someone whose life changed ours so powerfully? Someone that in six years of living continues to impact and inspire us five years later.
I do have an idea, if I may be so bold as to make a birthday wish on Emilie’s behalf? I do know that she always did and continues to love her family and supports what is important to them. Over the last five years our family has advocated for children’s safety and well being by starting two non-profit organizations.
On the day Emilie died there was a birthday party invitation on our fridge. It was for Josephine “Joey” Gay. Those two friends died together in the same classroom at Sandy Hook Elementary School. Now Emilie’s mom, Alissa and Joey’s mom, Michele have created Safe and Sound Schools. The only non-profit initiative in the after math of Sandy Hook to focus solely on School Safety.
We also created the Emilie Parker Art Connection which focuses mainly on embodying Emilie’s love of art to connect children suffering from trauma, abuse and neglect to art therapy as a way of healing.
If you would like to join us in celebrating Emilie’s 12th birthday please do so because she loved a party!
May marks the fifth anniversary of our organization’s start, and it was important to us to mark the occasion with something meaningful to show our progress and highlight opportunities for improvement in school safety. True to our mission, we wanted to create something useful and practical, with the potential for immediate benefit to communities throughout the country.
From this need, we developed the idea to issue a report on “The State of School Safety” to provide insights and bring to light perspectives from parents, students, educators (teachers, administrators, staff, mental wellness professionals, and SROs), and the general public. After all, school safety isn’t one person’s job – we all share in the responsibility to keep our students safe.
In addition, as you know, the Straight-A Safety Improvement model starts with “assess” as the first step. The State of School Safety Report is an assessment of sorts… the first collective step we took on behalf of school communities throughout the country. Let’s face it, if we don’t have a good handle on what is going on, how can we really address it?
The State of School Safety Report illustrates several school safety issues communities need to address, such as communication between educators and other stakeholders (particularly parents and students), student dissatisfaction with current safety conversations and actions at their schools, the need to broaden our current narrow view of safety issues and gain more input from the entire school community, and finally, dive deeper into the unique challenges of smaller schools.
We know there is no one-size-fits-all approach to school safety, but we hope you can use this report to start a conversation in your community. See if our national findings ring true for your school, or if your specific school community has other school safety priorities. You can read a summary of the research in our press release, or download the full report at www.safeandsoundschools.org/research. Thank you for all you do to improve the safety in our schools.
We know that you, too, are committed to the safety of the entire school community – where your child, or a child you know, goes to school – and beyond. If you have never supported our sweeping efforts to address the safety of schools across the complete spectrum, and in ways that reach every single school community, would you consider doing so today? A donation in any amount sustains our mission of making all of our schools safe and sound. If you would like to make a donation to help us mark our fifth anniversary, you can do so by clicking the button below. Thank you.
When I sat down to talk with John McDonald, a nationally-recognized school security expert, I knew I had to share some of his thoughts and lessons with you. So I recorded our conversation and edited down some key points for you. This is the first conversation in a series we’re calling “The Sound Off.” More on that later this year…
Back to John. This man is quite simply, incredible.
Even though John joined Jefferson County after the Columbine shooting, he has endured three horrendous experiences… things we hope nobody else has to go through… one abduction and two shootings. Suffice it to say, we can all learn from John. He has so much experience, working for 10-plus years in his community, honing communications, processes, and overall security. He knows what works, and what doesn’t.
Sure, John’s commitment to his school community is impressive. But his accomplishments highlight the importance of having someone dedicated to school safety. From the assessments, training, and ongoing discussions he drives, John is involving the whole community and changing perceptions about school safety.
We all thank you, John, for all you do to keep these school communities safe. You are a beacon of strength, a foundation of hope, and thread of connection helping to keep your community strong.
Alissa Parker, Co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools
With the close of this year’s first quarter, we’re excited to share an update for January, February, and March.
We started the year with a visit to Westport High School in Massachusetts. During her visit, Co-founder Michele Gay shared her story and introduced the Safe and Sound Youth Council to students and staff. Later in January, Michele made her way to Pennsylvania to present for staff and shared Safe and Sound Schools’ resources and programs with the Hazleton Area School District.
Early in February, Michele traveled to Georgetown, South Carolina, where she presented first for students and staff and then for the community. Shortly after, she traveled to Wisconsin to present for the Wisconsin Chiefs of Police Association. In late February, Co-founder Alissa Parker headed to the Cincinnati area, where she shared her story and practical ways to improve school safety with community members. Soon after, Michele traveled back to South Carolina to attend the South Carolina Association School Administrators School Safety Summit, where she shared her story and lessons learned in school safety. February community visits concluded in Michele’s home state of Maryland, where she attended Howard County’s school safety community meeting to advocate for funding and improved safety measures and training. Finally, Michele conducted a nationwide webinar with School Messenger, citing the power of communication capability and planning for school-based crisis management.
March community visits kicked off with a visit to Little Rock, Arkansas, where Safe and Sound Speaker and Mental Health Advisor, Dr. Stephen Brock, presented on bullying and suicide prevention for the Arkansas Mental Health in Education Association (ARMEA). The following week, Alissa traveled to Arlington, Virginia to present at the National PTA Legislative Conference, while Michele gathered with Lisa Hamp, Virginia Tech Survivor; Dr. Melissa Reeves, School-Based Mental Health Expert; Dr. CJ Huff, former superintendent of the Joplin, Missouri Schools; Kiki Lebya, Columbine survivor and teacher; John McDonald, school security and safety expert; and Mac Hardy of the National Association of School Resource Officers to kick off the Maryland School Safety Initiative, sponsored by the Maryland Center for School Safety and The BFG Foundation of Maryland. This year’s theme, Recovering the School Community from Crisis, brought together inspiring stories of recovery and resiliency and was particularly timely in the wake of several national school-based crisis. Stay tuned for more travel and trainings across Maryland as part of this year’s Maryland School Safety Initiative.
Also in March, Raptor Technologies hosted Dr. CJ Huff once again in a nationally attended school safety webinar on called “Seven Leadership Lessons.” And the University at Buffalo hosted the 15th Annual Safe Schools Initiative Seminar, where Michele and Dr. Amanda Nickerson presented alongside Mo Canady, Safe and Sound Advisor and Executive Director for the National Association of School Resource Officers. While Safe and Sound speaker and Virginia Tech survivor, Lisa Hamp, spoke at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania, Michele spoke in Wellesley, Massachusetts where she shared her story and invited community members to rethink school safety as a community. The following day, Michele traveled to Illinois to speak at the Illinois Fire Inspectors Association Conference, accompanied by Safe and Sound speaker and special advisor, Frank DeAngelis. Several days after this conference, Frank traveled to Georgia where he presented for the Eastside High School community. Later, Safe and Sound speaker Lisa Hamp traveled to Chicago to present her survivor’s story to Chicago area school leaders. The first quarter concluded with Michele and Dr. Melissa Reeves joining forces with Morris County, New Jersey school and law enforcement leaders to create a customized threat assessment matrix for assessing and managing threats to school safety.
Our first quarter was not only defined by the communities we visited and the relationships we forged during this period, it was also defined by the tragic events that took place during this time. We found ourselves deeply inspired by the student-led movements and took action to support the STOP School Violence Act of 2018. We also launched a national survey focusing on school safety perceptions and are currently analyzing the data to provide insights in the form of our first annual “State of School Safety” report to help school communities better tackle the myriad challenges of school safety. Stay tuned for our findings later in the spring.
To support Safe and Sound Schools and our mission, you can share our materials, donate, shop our School Store, or purchase an Inspire Change bracelet from Jammin Hammer Jewelry. Learn more about Jammin Hammer’s fundraiser for Safe and Sound Schools, here.
As parents of children with autism, we already know firsthand the many challenges associated with keeping our kids safe, both in and out of school. The nature of our child’s disorder often presents a wide range of behaviors that can make their safety our full-time job. Wandering/elopement, PICA, choking, water fixations, inability to communicate in an emergency, and general situational fearlessness mark a few of the many things we face (or simply worry about) on a daily basis.
The statistics from the National Autism Association speak for themselves:
- Approximately 48% of children with an ASD attempt to elope from a safe environment, a rate nearly four times higher than their unaffected siblings
- Two in three parents of elopers have experienced a traffic injury “close call”
- More than one-third of ASD children who wander/elope are never or rarely able to communicate their name, address, or phone number
I know how easy it is to become consumed with debilitating fear every time your child is out of your sight. When my daughter, Jenna, was younger, I often felt powerless to protect her – or, to even be able to predict how she would react and respond in any given situation. Now, as she’s approaching 15-years old, I understand that while parents of children with autism have to be exceptionally vigilant at all times, we do have resources and options available to support us in our efforts to keep them keep them safe.
Create Your Safety Plan
Every family has their own safety routines for their child with autism. Over the years, my husband, Jonathan, and I have learned and implemented various tools, tips, and technologies into a cohesive safety plan for Jenna. For example, we know that every time we enter a room, we assess available exits and create a strategy that ensures Jenna is continuously monitored by one of us. We keep a window decal on Jenna’s side of the car that alerts first responders that Jenna is unable to communicate her needs in the event of an accident, and we take photos of her, almost daily, in case she wanders off and we need to tell responders what she was wearing.
Often, parents assume that a 1:1 aide will be able to handle whatever safety issues arise and make modifications on the fly. It is important to be sure that the aide is well trained and equipped to support your child in a variety of emergency situations. Does your child’s aide carry emergency essentials that your child might require (lollipops to stay quiet during lockdown, fidget toys to stay occupied, first aide items)? Has he/she been trained in all safety protocols and equipped to carry them out? Does he/she have keys to the classroom door? What about communication capability (i.e radio, cell phone, office call button, access to the PA system)? Or a wheelchair or “stair chair” to assist in transporting or evacuating your child if necessary?
Other useful resources we’ve incorporated into our safety routines include:
Most parents don’t realize they can have safety goals and emergency plans outlined in their child’s IEP. Always discuss your child’s specific needs with the school administration and Special Education director to put a detailed plan in place.
We use the SafetyNet tracking device to help keep our daughter safe. Worn on a child’s ankle or wrist, this device ensures that should she wander off while wearing the tracker, police/fire department can quickly locate her.
Similarly, many parents use the Life360 app for children who have their own smartphone.
We installed an active alarm system in our home that instantly alerts us whenever a door or window opens. The alarm enables us to respond quickly should Jenna wander off. There are many low tech ways to alarm the doors of your home, from hanging bells to installing individual door alarms that you can find at your local hardware store.
Keep those “kid safety locks” on at all times to ensure your child can’t open the car door while the vehicle is in motion. Yes, you will inevitably inadvertently lock your adult friends in your backseat at some point – they will forgive you.
Partnering with First Responders
Our town offers the Erin Program; a program created specifically for special needs families. Parents create an emergency profile for their child to help first responders in the event of an emergency. All personal information is securely stored and not made public. Contact your local police or fire department to see if your town offers this program or something similar.
No matter how many apps we download or strategies we implement, we will always worry about our children and their safety – as all parents do. However, for parents of children with autism, continuously tapping into the resources available to us can deliver the much-needed peace of mind that we are doing everything we can to advocate for and protect our kids at all times.
Susan Parziale is the Administrative Coordinator for Safe and Sound Schools and lives in Boston.
In honor of Sexual Assault Awareness Month, the many survivors, and friends and families affected by sexual assault, we share Katie’s story of hope and perseverance.
As an incoming college freshman, I was so excited to start college and live independently for the first time. I was encouraged to be outgoing and social with my peers to make new friends. I jumped in whole-heartedly. My suite mates and I grew close quickly and spent lots of time meeting new people in the first few weeks of school. I was having a great experience.
However, only two weeks into the semester, my experience turned into a nightmare. I met a fellow student on my dorm floor. He invited my roommate and I to decorate his dorm room. We were happy to help. Once there, he offered us both alcoholic drinks. I decided to accept his offer, but my roommate had class and decided not to drink. When it was time for my roommate to leave for class, I headed to the door with her; but he insisted that I stay and watch a movie. I agreed.
Shortly after my roommate left, my mind became foggy and he started making sexual advances. I no longer knew what was happening and lost touch with reality. I blacked out.
The next morning, I woke up to a bruised and bloody body. I felt sick and had a bad headache. It was a struggle to get out of bed. I was scared and did not know where to turn.
My parents had lectured me about the dangers of drinking, so I decided not to tell them what happened initially after the incident. No college student wants to tell her parents something like this, but ultimately, I decided to tell them. Thankfully, they were more understanding than I expected. In hindsight, I recommend that all students have a support person, a trusted adult with whom they can confide in case something serious happens on campus. With support, I believe I would have made different decisions and better navigated the reporting process.
Although I did decide to go to the hospital, I did not initially call 911 or report my rape to the police. At the hospital, I was told that I could file a “delayed report.” Overwhelmed with the idea of reporting to the police, I chose this option. However, when I did file with the local police, I was told that it was too late to investigate. My “complaint” was closed and labeled as a “non-criminal, suspicious condition;” therefore, no action was taken.
I decided to turn to the University for help. Initially, they seemed supportive and promised academic assistance and free medical treatment. Filing a Title IX complaint, which protects a victim’s rights to a safe academic environment, was optional, and not necessary to get support. However, I was afraid of my offender and requested an investigation because my fear of running into him affected my class attendance and ability to complete assignments.
I struggled through the rest of the semester. I was promised both academic support and a safe learning environment but received neither. I didn’t feel safe and felt misunderstood by the college administration that I had turned to for help. The college conducted a haphazard investigation, which decided my offender was not at fault, even though I had a hospital exam with pictures of injuries and he admitted to giving me alcohol and having sex.
I learned that individual student interests might not be the first priority of a school. I also learned to be cautious when deciding to use support services on campus. It is important to consider finding independent, legal counsel or reaching out to a free support organization such as One Love or Take Back the Night for guidance and support. Hiring a lawyer is something I did not think I needed to do at the time, but later, I regretted not finding one to help with the investigation process and to ensure my rights.
Once I did consult with an attorney, it was recommended that I have my hair tested for drugs. The hair test came back positive for a Benzodiazepine, which I never took voluntarily. Many drugs leave the body quickly and do not show up on minimal screenings in hospital rape exams.
Two years later, I look back on my nightmare. I realize that I survived a difficult time because I learned to ask for help. My friends and family supported me when justice failed. I left the University and returned home to heal. I have started taking classes again at a school nearby. I found counseling and began educating students and supporting other sexual assault victims as part of my healing.
The best advice I could give to anyone struggling with sexual assault or any traumatic experience is to persevere and know that things will eventually get better. Healing can take a long time, but finding people who embrace and support you through your struggles can help you get through it.
For more information and resources on dating violence, sexual assault prevention and recovery, please visit the following websites: