While I spend a fair amount of time traveling to visit schools, communities, and school safety professionals, my travel increases tremendously in the wake of a school tragedy. In those moments, when I listen to the conversations around me, I hear such strong views, opinions, and ideas about school safety– all coming from the deepest places of concern, fear, anger, and disbelief.
In the aftermath of tragedy, with every breaking news detail, we are unified in our desire to keep our kids and communities safe. But, as mouths move and emotions rise, I find myself internally wondering, What were your thoughts on school safety the day before the disaster? Were you this concerned with school safety the day before the tragedy? Were you talking about it at the office? Did you post on social media about it? Was the topic even on your radar?
For many–if not most of us–it likely wasn’t. While I wonder, I do not judge. It wasn’t high on my radar on December 13, 2014, the day before an attacker walked into Sandy Hook Elementary School and into my daughter’s fist-grade classroom. It wasn’t until a tragedy touched my life that the issue of school safety took a permanent position in the forefront of my mind and sparked the mission that is now at the core of Safe and Sound Schools.
With the new school year upon us, the back-to-school commercials airing once more, and school emails filling our inboxes, I wonder about the year ahead. Many of you are wondering about it as well, perhaps even considering a more proactive role in the safety of your child’s schools. With this hope in mind, I share the top 10 questions I hope you will ask yourself, your children, your neighbors and your school – questions I wish I had asked myself years ago:
1. What conversations are you willing to have with your children regarding school safety and the risks that can arise while at school (always considering your child’s age and readiness for conversations surrounding safety)? Topics may range from weather safety (what to do in the case of a tornedo) to school violence. What will be your family plan? Who in your family can your student call in case of an emergency.
2. What about your school’s plans? Are you aware of the emergency plans? Do you know what is expected of you? It’s critical that you know and understand your school’s plan in the case of an emergency and in order to support these plans at home. For example, does the school perform lockdowns? What kinds of other drills are practice–and how often?
3. How is outside access to the building controlled during school hours? Are exterior doors locked or open during the day? How many points of entry into and out of your school are there? What about the security of school visitors? Is there a visitor management system, either manual (with staff checking visitors in and verifying id’s) or technology-based (such as Raptor Visitor Management) in place to vet those gaining entry into the schools?
4. What about security? Does staff or security walk around the school, inside or out? Does your school have the support of a school resource officer? Does your school have any unique weaknesses in terms of its physical structure that need to be addressed? Do the classroom doors lock? If so, how? Do those locks meet fire code? How are the doors unlocked? Are glass entryways into your school fortified?
5. What law enforcement agency supports your school and is called in case of an issue? How many officers and agencies (i.e. fire, police, EMS) are available to your school if needed?
6. In the case of an emergency, what is your schools reunification plan? Is there one? What is expected of parents in case of reunification?
7. Have you talked to your students about being good citizens as well as being good cyber-citizens? How are kids protected and/or disciplined in cases of bullying?
8. How does your school support mental health? Is there a school-based mental health professional available to students and families? Do students know where to take concerns about themselves or their peers? How does your school foster a culture of safety and support for all students?
9. Does your area provide unique challenges or issues that affect your student’s safety? Extreme weather or natural hazards? If so, are there weather shelters in place? Is your school in a high-crime area? If so, is walking to school appropriate? How is student safety ensured when coming and going to and from school?
10. Does your school have a system to monitor threats on social media that identify your school or students in them? What about reporting mechanism on campus? Do students have a way of reporting known information to either a trusted adult or an outside agency? Safe and Sound partners with ReportIt nationally. This and other organizations offer tools for students and community members to keep their schools safe.
Having lost our precious daughter at Sandy Hook School, the thought of school safety is with my family every single day. It is my hope that communities come together, with students hand-in-hand, working purposefully, to protect every campus across our nation. The loss of one child this coming school year is one too many. Join me and our growing team of volunteers, experts and community members who are determined to keep all kids Safe and Sound.
Michele Gay, Co-founder and Executive Director of Safe and Sound Schools
As summer draws to a close, the next few weeks are prime time to take your kids back-to-school shopping. Lunch boxes, binders, and classroom essentials like tissues and cleaning wipes are necessary purchases for parents to make before children start their first day back.
Although we assume that these common school supplies are safe for our children to use, there is still the chance that harmful ingredients can be present. Before you take your child shopping, keep these three ingredients in mind and make the conscious decision to purchase and inquire about healthier products.
1. Phthalates in plastic products
Phthalates are a class of chemicals used to improve the durability of plastic. They are found in a number of consumer goods including food & beverage containers, children’s toys, and even shower curtains. But, they are also widely present in school supplies such as lunch boxes, backpacks, and binders.
Phthalates are a known hormone disruptor, and multiple studies have linked exposure to developmental and reproductive concerns. Research has also suggested a risk of allergic diseases due to DEHP and BBzP phthalate exposure.
When you take your child shopping for supplies, consider purchasing eco-friendly binders made from non-plastic products such as cardboard or fabric. Avoid backpacks with plastic designs or exteriors as these likely contain phthalates. If you’re on the hunt for a new lunch box, choose cloth over hard plastic versions or check out independent reviews such as this one from Romper for phthalate and BPA-free options.
2. VOCs in classroom cleaning supplies
VOCs, or volatile organic compounds, are a variety of chemicals released as gases from common cleaning products. Air fresheners, chlorine bleach, glass cleaners, and even wet wipes can contain these chemicals that are linked to a number of health issues. Exposure has been known to cause headaches, liver and kidney damage, and allergic skin reactions.
Oftentimes, teachers will ask students to bring in cleaning supplies for the classroom. Before you throw any brand into your cart however, check the label for VOCs. Benzyl alcohol, ammonia, and ethanol are three common ingredients to look out for, but consultCenter for Disease Control’s (CDC) list for others that may be present.
To err on the side of caution, choose eco-friendly cleaning supplies that will protect your children and the environment. If you’re still unsure about a product’s safety, look for buzzwords on the packaging like “harmful if swallowed,” “use gloves,” or “use in a well-ventilated area.” These phrases are usually good indicators that a product contains harmful chemicals like VOCs.
3. Glyphosate in School Groundskeeping Products
Although this ingredient isn’t one that parents will be able to directly impact, it’s still important to know the products that are being used to treat school grounds, sports fields, and playground areas.
Glyphosate is an active ingredient inherbicides, widely used by gardeners, homeowners, and farmers. In recent years however,lawsuits have alleged thatglyphosate is a carcinogen linked to cancers including non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. In fact, a school groundskeeper’s legal casehas been the first to move forwardafter years of exposure to the chemical during his time as pest manager for a San Francisco school district.
A study published in JAMA found that the prevalence of human exposure to glyphosate has increased by 500% in recent years. However, research is still being conducted to determine the human health effects of this exposure. Concerned parents should inquire with school administration about the products being used on school grounds, especially since the chemical’s safety remains under speculation.
Heading back to school is an exciting time, but don’t let the anticipation of a new academic year cause you to forget about your children’s safety. Take time to read product labels, inquire about the safety of your school’s groundskeeping efforts, and ensure that the items you send with your child into the classroom are safe and healthy for all.
Guest Author Bio:
Morgan Statt is a health & safety investigator who covers a number of issues including product safety and trending health news. With her background in strategic communication, she strives to educate readers on how they can make informed decisions about the products they purchase every day. In her free time, she can be found crafting the perfect Spotify playlist and supporting local businesses who share in her passion for quality food. Follow her on Twitter @morganstatt.
This blog contains views, and positions of the author, and does not represent Safe and Sound Schools. Information provided in this blog is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Safe and Sound Schools accepts no liability for any omissions, errors, or representations. The copyright to this content belongs to the author and any liability with regards to infringement of intellectual property rights remains with them.
Parents often ask us how to be more engaged with their kids, how to best support them as they navigate this complicated world around them. Shari Nacson, LISW-S, Child Development Specialist, and Advisor to Safe and Sound Schools weighs in with some helpful tips.
1. Development happens on a continuum.
Anna Freud called this the concept of developmental lines. It’s easiest to picture with an everyday task that babies can’t do, but adults have mastered — like eating. We’re fed soft things, then hard things, then we become able to feed ourselves, someday we shop and prepare meals.
When we consider the challenges that face our children — of any age — we need to think about where they are developmentally. Are they learning about something, wanting it done for them, emerging with mastery, or dancing in-between? When we think developmentally, we are able to honor what kids have mastered and then lay scaffolding for where they soon will be. This concept applies to all life skills: literacy, math, maintaining friendships, personal hygiene, time management … everything that we hope our kids will someday do independently and successfully.
With school safety, one might think about your child’s existing awareness, what information they might soon receive from elsewhere (and if they need to hear things from you first), what information intersects helpfully or unhelpfully with your own family values, issues, and strategies. Just like we do on a systemic level, assess the context, then act on what you know, and audit/reflect on how it went.
2. Some things are best heard from your parents. No matter how old you are.
While many schools have mastered the art of sharing difficult news and supporting the school community through related processes, kids of all ages still do best if they have been prepared at home. Talk together about community tragedies, school policies, and global issues that they might hear about at school. Do this in a developmentally and age appropriate way — so your child is more prepared should they hear something in a group or media setting. When we talk with our kids about these things, they feel respected and can manage any big feelings in the privacy of home.
The world comes at kids fast and furious; our job is to slow it down so their hearts and minds can process information in the healthiest possible way.
3. Do good together.
Volunteering together is one of the best ways to intentionally be together. It’s constructive, fun, creative, tech-free, and makes the world a better place. While volunteering, you interact in ways that no other activity provides. You transmit your own values and build special memories that are likely to inspire each of you. One of the keys to empowerment is shifting away from passive roles (the world happens to us) to active roles (we make things happen in the world around us). Volunteerism offers a platform where kids (and adults) can feel encouraged, empowered, and can directly see their impact on the world around them.
Volunteering together builds healthy neuropathways, supports conscience development, and increases resilience — for everyone involved. For older kids and teens, follow their lead in choosing volunteer opportunities.
All of the things that make our world a better place when done by adults — all of the engagement that makes our civic institutions and communities function in healthy ways — all of them require a foundation of engaged compassion.
4. Convey that you believe in your child.
Even with something that is tricky to master, we want our kids to know that we believe they will get there. We also want them to know that we trust them. Sometimes this may be more of a Jedi mind trick (“I know you’ll do the right thing” is often code for a worried parent trying to elicit a kid’s conscience), but it works better than shaming kids into compliance.
If your child has a track record of poor decision-making, you might need to be more concrete about the steps to good decision-making, all-the-while conveying that to err is human and that you know they will get to a place of self-sufficiency, even if the road is bumpy. Collaborate with helpers if your child has had difficulty making safe, smart decisions.
When kids know we believe in them, they feel empowered and make better choices.
5. Don’t wait for a crisis to happen.
Our fast-paced society doesn’t allow us the time to think, to be intentional. This is the one investment that can make the biggest difference in your parenting: dedicate time to think about parenting.
Every family should have a trusted someone — counselor, clergy member, pediatrician, educator, friend — who helps them think clearly about their kids. Take a moment right now to think about who your trusted someone is. Do you talk regularly? Do you only reach out when it’s a crisis? Think about increasing that contact — like the old saying, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.
Each child is unique; the situations they encounter are complex. And just when they master something, development kicks-in and all the things that worked before will need to be recalibrated. We do best by our kids by embracing this part of life — this messy, bumpy, exciting, and thwarting part of life.
We don’t have to wait for our kids to be in grave distress before we ask for help. The day-to-day minutiae also warrants our thoughtful consideration; tending to it can sometimes prevent a larger crisis. Professionals who work with kids welcome your questions, about small and big things.
More than anything, find someone who helps you be the parent you want to be.
Shari Nacson, LISW-S, is a freelance writer, child development specialist, and nonprofit consultant in Cleveland, Ohio. As a public speaker, she enjoys helping busy parents become more intentional with their child-raising strategies.
By: Leslie Lagerstrom & Todd A. Savage, Ph.D., NCSP
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. School staff and school-based mental health professionals work every day to support the mental health, physical, and psychological safety of all children and youth in school, particularly students who are bullied ostracized, isolated or who lack social support at school, at home, or in the community.
Transgender and other gender-diverse students, even those who demonstrate strong resiliency skills are particularly vulnerable for poor mental health outcomes due to these and other factors. Strong home-school collaboration and partnerships can bolster transgender and other gender-diverse students’ mental health, which increases their ability to perform successfully in academics and beyond; consider one family’s story.
Sam was 10 years old the first time we discovered he was exploring ways to commit suicide. Ten years old. I remember the terror that ran down my spine that day when we learned he wanted to end his life. What I thought was just another Wednesday, turned out to be the day my son’s classmates broke his spirit.
As a transgender youth, Sam suffered from daily incidents of bullying and harassment, and this day was no exception. Boarding the bus that morning, he was greeted with the usual shuffling of backpacks and kids quickly moving from one seat to another so that he could not sit next to them. The first whispers, stares and laughs of the day began on that bus as he self-consciously walked down the narrow aisle looking for a seat.
At school, the bullying ramped up…loud whispers in the halls that were meant to be heard; giggles during roll call when the teacher read the name ‘Samuel’ for the child that was once known as Samantha; body language intended to intimidate; and classmates calling Sam ‘It’ under the direction of their parents, because Sam was not conforming to their understanding of gender.
In science class Sam’s stomach filled with butterflies when he heard the teacher say, “Pick a lab partner.” He already knew how this scene would end because he had been there too many times before, standing awkwardly alone while his classmates eagerly rearranged their chairs, to partner with their pals. Sam was once again the odd man out because nobody wanted to be paired with that kid who “…used to be a girl.”
Lunch was spent alone in an alcove in the basement. This was his safe space where he ate alone each day because he was afraid to walk through the school lunchroom. By afternoon he needed to use a restroom but there were none that were safe and so he decided to hold it, just like he had done for the last 45 school days, even when this practice resulted in chronic bladder infections. The last hour of the day he had gym class, where he was taunted for standing with the boys when the teacher instructed the class to line up by gender. His day was spent trying to avoid one form of mental abuse after another, but at the age of 10 he was not yet equipped to protect himself from emotional harm. His spirit broken, he decided he had had enough.
Luckily for our family, we were able to mitigate some of the pain his classmates inflicted that day – enough that he stopped thinking about harming himself for a while. Sadly, this is what an average day looks like for many transgender and gender diverse kids.
I share Sam’s experience with you to illustrate the type of behavior that threatens the mental health of countless students every single day. Disrespectful behavior that is always at someone else’s expense, the cost of which, istoo high for any child or family to pay. In extreme cases the consequences culminate in violence, while in other incidences children choose to harm themselves or simply sink into a pit of despair and depression.
As the mom of a transgender child that has walked alongside him through the psychological mine fields created by his classmates, I know the mental toll they have taken. At home we coach him to focus on the positive, but human nature sneaks in on particularly bad days, only allowing him to remember the hurt. When you think about it, schools go to great lengths to ensure the physical well-being of students, but the same cannot be said for their mental health. I truly believe that not until our schools care equally about their students’ physical and mental well-being, will our children be safe and sound in the classroom.
Leslie Lagerstrom is the creator of the blog Transparenthood™, which chronicles her family’s experience raising a transgender child. She is a contributor to The Huffington Post and her essays can be found in two anthologies, Mamas Write and Nothing But the Truth So Help Me God. Committed to spreading awareness on the subject of transgender children, Leslie frequently shares her family’s story, speaking in front of audiences across the nation.
Todd A. Savage, Ph.D., NCSP, is a professor in the school psychology program at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls (UWRF); he is also a past president of the National Association of School Psychologists. Dr. Savage’s scholarly research interests include culturally-responsive practice; social justice; lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender issues in education; and school safety and crisis prevention, preparedness, and intervention. He has conducted numerous professional development workshops on gender diversity in schools for administrators, teachers, school-based mental health professionals, and staff members locally, regionally, and nationally throughout the past five years.
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.
Earlier this week, I had the amazing opportunity to speak at the National PTA Legislative Conference in Arlington, Virginia. I was invited to speak during the opening session with U.S. Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos.
The attendees gathered were state PTA representatives from every state in the country. The theme of this year’s conference was to “Get in the Game”, to inspire advocates into action.
The PTA has touched my heart in a deep way. The PTA is made up of parents and educators who volunteer their time for the sole purpose of benefiting the youth in our communities. These are the real change-makers! I was honored to share with them my own personal journey from a stay-at-home mom to a school safety advocate. It was never a path that I anticipated or would think to take, but our lives have a strange way of changing course when we least expect it.
Over the last couple of months, I have seen a major shift in the conversation surrounding school safety. Communities are ready to take actions to ensure that tragedies like Sandy Hook and Parkland don’t happen again. Our goal as an organization is to help educate school communities in how to get started today. Change is possible. We can make schools safe when we work together.
Join the movement today. Begin the school safety assessment process by downloading our free Straight-A Safety Toolkits, launching a Safe and Sound Youth Council, or simply sharing our materials with your community. Together we can make our school safe and sound.
Mother of Emilie Parker
Co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools