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
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
While schools are among the safest places for young people in our society, the recent mass shootings and school shooting in Benton, Kentucky, can increase fears and safety concerns for children and parents.
While the odds of a child aged 5 to 18 years being the victim of a violent death at school are extraordinarily low, it can and does happen. Consequently, it is important for parents to have guidance on how to address such events with their children. Adapted from guidance we have developed for the National Association of School Psychologists, in this blog we offer some of our thoughts on how parents can support their children when they ask questions about school violence.
Develop and Foster Resiliency
Proactively developing resiliency can help your child develop resources needed to cope with trauma exposure. Internal resiliency can be promoted by:
- Encouraging an active (or approach oriented) coping style (e.g., helping others, taking action to help yourself)
- Teaching your child how to better regulate their emotions and solve problems
- Providing your child guidance on positive, healthy ways of coping
- Fostering self-confidence and self-esteem by building upon your child’s strengths
- Validating the importance of faith and belief systems
External resiliency can be promoted by:
- Facilitating school connectedness and engagement in school and community activities
- Facilitating peer relationships
- Providing access to positive adult role models
Provide a Safe Place to Talk
Next, let your child know you are willing to pay attention, listen, and without forcing them to do so, talk about school violence. Protect your child by answering questions truthfully and providing reassurance that adults will take care of him or her. When providing facts about school violence, avoid providing any unasked-for details that might increase fears and emphasize actions adults and their school are taking to help keep them safe.
Build Community Connections
Connect your child to others by engaging the assistance of your child’s teachers, a school psychologist, coaches/mentors, friends, and neighbors. Spend extra time with your child and encourage engagement in familiar routines and activities.
Take Care of Yourself
It’s important to be aware of your own emotions, and while it is okay to show some emotion, it is a problem when adults lose the ability to regulate their emotions or fears in front of children. Especially for youth in preschool and primary grades, this makes a situation seem more frightening. If you are struggling to cope with the reality of school violence, reach out to others with similar experiences, or seek professional help. Taking care of yourself, will help you to better care for your child.
Increase Self-awareness and Understanding
It is important for your child to learn how to identify and manage fear and anxiety related emotions. You might tell your child to listen to their body’s “alarm system.” Help them to understand that stress reactions can help to keep them safe from physical and emotional harm in a dangerous situation, but when danger is not present such stress is not helpful. Enlist the support of a school psychologist to help your child regulate emotions such as anger, anxiety, and fear. Development of these skills empowers your child with knowledge that they have control over their emotions.
Encourage positive messaging by helping your child to assert: “I am strong,” and “People care about me.” Help your child to understand that while they may not have complete control over their circumstances, they do have some control over how they respond to the situation and how they seek support. Review safety protocols their school has in place and what they can do to get to a safe location if there is a concern. Refer to Developmental Levels of Safety Awareness for information on providing such guidance.
Increase Empowerment through Engagement
Let your child know that his or her voice matters. Help them find a way to be a part of the solution and a true stakeholder in safety. Younger children may enjoy starting or joining a Safety Patrol at school, while middle and high school students may take a greater leadership role by starting or joining the Safe and Sound Youth Council in their school.
If your child is distressed, keep in mind that recovery is the rule. However, if stress reactions do not begin to lessen after a week or more, consider seeking the help of a trained professional such as a school psychologist. This is especially important if your child has ever been directly exposed to an act of violence or has lost a family member.
Dr. Melissa Reeves is the Immediate Past President of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) and a speaker and advisor for Safe and Sound Schools. Dr. Stephen Brock is a former President of NASP and speaker and advisor for Safe and Sound Schools.
Students make the best teachers. They are the eyes and ears of their schools…. the leaders of movements… and the galvanizers of change. In all the years I’ve spent traveling around the country, I’ve met some incredible students who are just as inspired as we are to create a nation of safer schools.
As excited as I was to meet these students, and thrilled that they understand the need for school safety, I felt frustrated that there wasn’t a way for them to turn their ideas into action. So fueled by their passion and bright ideas, we talked to our network of experts, students, teachers and administrators to build a new program: The Safe and Sound Youth Council.
The Safe and Sound Youth Council gives students a seat at the table and brings them into the national conversation of school safety. It is a leadership program, accessible to all, and gives students the support they need to assess their school’s safety, act with smart and sustainable changes, and audit their impact. At the same time, the Safe and Sound Youth Council provides them with a foundation of credibility to help bring their ideas to life.
We hope you will check out the program page to learn more about the Safe and Sound Youth Council. Please also share this program with your networks, especially any students. The faster we can get more Safe and Sound Youth Council chapters off the ground, the closer we’ll come to creating a nation of safer schools.
So thank you to Kaia, Noah, Trey, Makenzi, Colby, Anthony, John, Julia, Olivia, James, and the countless other students who helped bring to life this unique and empowering program. At Safe and Sound Schools, we will never give up, and thanks to the new Youth Council program, we can bring the students into the conversation and foster a new generation of champions who won’t give up, either.
Michele Gay, Co-founder and Executive Director of Safe and Sound Schools
Back-to-school is an important event every year in my home. It represents so much more than just back-to-school. It means my kids are getting older and naturally that I am getting older as well. There will be new teachers, new clothes, new school supplies! Summer wanes, fall creeps in and life takes on a familiar routine. Of course, for me another topic on my mind when school rolls around is safety. Even when our girls were young my husband and I spoke openly and frequently about safety rules and guidelines. We have had these talks so often over the years that our girls are now able to mimic our “discussions” verbatim any chance they can.
Talking about safety at school has been one of the newer additions to our list of safety conversations. After losing my oldest daughter Emilie to a school shooting, how could it not? This year, our safety conversation was initiated by my youngest daughter Samantha, a soon to be 3rd grader, while shopping for new school clothes. “Mom, can I tell you something,” she began. “Did you know there are drills at our school where we have to go outside?!” I smiled and asked her if she could tell me why they would need to go out of the school for a drill. She explained to me not only why they would need to evacuate their school, but how all the other drills at her school work. Samantha loves an audience and I love seeing her repeat all the safety information she has learned both at home and at school.
When we talk to children about school safety, it can often feel intimidating. However, like most things, the more we practice the better we get. In that one conversation while shopping, my daughters covered not only safety drills but also discussions about bullying and what to do if you find yourself surrounded by strangers. Seeing Samantha take our safety talks to another level and become the teacher herself was amazing. Safety is an empowering tool for children. Having safety rules and boundaries gives them a sense of security and control. So, if you haven’t already started those conversations with your kids, start now! You will be amazed with the ideas they will share with you and the questions and conversations that will follow. Hopefully, someday soon they will become your teacher as well!
Alissa Parker, Co-founder of Safe and Sound Schools