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.
Summer is here, school is out, and many of us are left with newfound free time. Many of us may find ourselves vacationing with our friends and family, but for those of us who work in school communities, summer is also a time to plan and learn. Here are 5 ways you can continue to improve school safety this summer:
1) Assess, Act, and Audit. To assess, act, and audit, download the Straight-A Safety Toolkit for free to begin taking steps toward rethinking and improving school safety in your school community. Our free toolkits are designed to facilitate conversations, problem-solving, and partnerships in your school community. Learn about threats, components to an assessment, strategies, security oversights, layers of security, and more. You’ll also have access to activities, drills, and other exercises. Use the summer to evaluate where your school stands on the safety spectrum and take steps toward improving plans and practices for the new school year.
2) Attend a school safety or security conference. Safety and security conferences are great educational opportunities, capable of providing you with new perspectives, ideas, and approaches to school safety. In addition to to educational opportunities like workshops and presentations, conferences also facilitate networking opportunities with other individuals in the field. Meet the experts, network with peers, and consider visiting some of the vendors to learn more about security solutions. You’ll not only be investing in your career development but you’ll also be able to bring new ideas to the table when the school year begins. Interested in seeing our co-founder Michele Gay speak? She’ll be at the Campus Safety Conference this month. Learn more here.
3) Hold a staff training or workshop. Invite a Safe and Sound Speaker to your summer safety affair. From mental health, to bullying prevention, to social emotional learning, to reunification and recovery, Safe and Sound Schools has speakers that will work with your team to educate and bring new perspectives and ideas. As an exciting side note, we are in process of updating our Speaker’s Bureau with more speakers! If there is a topic you’d like to see, please share your feedback with us.
4) Build relationships. Summer is a perfect time to mix and mingle and bring school safety stakeholders together. Help first responders, school resource officers, and other safety teams get to know each other. This can be an informal luncheon for safety stakeholders, combining the laid back and social aspect of summer with discussion, collaboration and planning for the new school year.
5) Update ICE cards. It only takes a couple minutes. Print or make a new “in case of an emergency” card and fill in current contact information. Make sure to include a primary contact, a secondary contact, and an out-of-town contact for your student. You can also include other important details like medical conditions and allergies. Make at least two copies, one for students to keep in their backpack/wallet and another to share with their teacher/school. And while we tend to think of ICE cards as a resource for students, teachers can also benefit from having one of their own. Include an emergency contact, the principal’s phone number, a local police number, and a doctor’s name and phone number. Other details like allergies and medical conditions can also be included. And since we live in a time where some of us have ditched paper and embraced technology, don’t forget that smart phones also allow us to store and share ICE information on our mobile devices. Make sure to update those too.
If you have any other suggestions on how school communities can continue to improve school safety over the summer, feel free to share your ideas with our community by commenting below, connecting with us on social media, or sending us an email. Don’t forget to subscribe if you’d like to see more content like this. Here’s to a safe, fun, and productive rest of your summer!
Our mission, our focus, our commitment is to the safety of schools nationwide. In addition to the primary, middle and secondary-level schools we support, it’s important to also consider non-traditional and private educational situations. After-school programs, preschools, and religious classes all share similar challenges in protecting the safety and security of the students, teachers and staff.
If this isn’t evident to you, then certainly the recent threats targeting Jewish Community Centers makes that crystal clear. While threats to date were not carried out, they are serious and harm the sense of security and safety our children feel in these educational environments. Dr. Melissa Reeves, president of the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP), says racism, discrimination, and prejudices harm students and their families. It can have a profoundly negative effect on school climate, a sense of physical and psychological safety, school achievement, social-emotional growth, and self-efficacy, according to Reeves.
“As school leaders and educators, it is imperative that we establish a climate of acceptance, facilitate positive discussions focused on understanding and celebrating differences, and help develop a future generation of citizens who make the conscious choice to focus on collaboration and cooperation, not divisiveness,” said Reeves. “Students, staff, teachers, and parents must feel safe at our schools and in our communities in order for learning to occur.”
Unfortunately, because they are not in a traditional “public school setting,” these other educational programs might not feel as connected to the important network of local safety experts.
We would be remiss if we didn’t offer some suggestions to help communities address the impact these threats have on our students in both traditional and non-traditional educational settings.
1. In December, we published a blog post that offers five suggestions to help ease concerns students may have about current events. These include making time for discussion, encouraging kindness, compassion and inclusiveness, teaching acceptance, being vocal, and seeking help. You can refer back to this post for more details, but these suggestions are absolutely relevant in this case, too, and may help remove some anxiety students might feel.
2. To help strengthen the safety network, broaden your partnerships to include local law enforcement. Sure, police departments play an important role in keeping communities safe as a whole, but they are also a positive force able to help keep schools safe. Mo Canady, the executive director of the National Association of School Resource Officers, says law enforcement can work with educators to collaborate on safe school crisis training, purposeful use of technology, and effective use of interagency partners. The organization’s comprehensive report, To Protect and Educate: The School Resource Officer and the Prevention of Violence in Schools, offers reference points school policymakers can use as they assess and plan to strengthen their safety.
3. Just as these situations have targeted religious institutions, we, too, can target our local religious organizations to remind them of the free resources and tools Safe and Sound Schools offers. The Straight-A Safety Improvement model works just as well for a synagogue, church, community center or mosque as they do for a traditional K-12 school. If you are part of a religious organization, please share our Assess, Act and Audit tools with your clergy or community leaders.
4. Finally, when talking with our children about any event that singles out a group of people, it is important to foster empathy. We talked with Rabbi Lisa Eiduson from a Jewish congregation in Massachusetts to get her perspective on these threats. She pointed to the idea that anyone targeted, whether bullied at school or receiving a threat, can feel like an outsider.
“When we look around and speak to people outside of our small community, we realize that we are in the company of many people and groups that likewise suffer from feelings of ‘being othered,’” Eiduson said. “Whether it is religion, skin color, nationality, sexual preference, physical or mental disability – even philosophical world-view – it is sobering to look beyond ourselves and see that there are many in our midst who also feel a bit like strangers in a strange land.”
We should talk to our students about this feeling of “otherness,” and by sharing this notion, we can come together and unify. Rabbi Eiduson says when we talk about this concept, we can pay closer attention to those who may feel pushed aside, listen to their stories with greater empathy, and “take action to strengthen ourselves so that we can strengthen others.”
Now more than ever, we need to come together to ensure the safety – emotional and physical – of our children. Threats are scary, real and harmful, but they don’t have to be the end of the story. From one-on-one talks to broader community conversations and partnerships, schools of all types have several tools available to help in the process. Let’s connect and work together to ensure community centers, after-school programs, pre-schools and other non-traditional learning environments are just as safe and secure as any other public or private school.
Michele Gay, Co-founder and Executive Director of Safe and Sound Schools
Mo Canady, Executive Director, National Association of School Resource Officers
Rabbi Lisa Eiduson, Massachusetts
Dr. Melissa Reeves, PhD
Recently, I received an email from a parent asking me, “What can I do to help Safe and Sound Schools? What can change to improve school safety?” It’s the same question that I receive from everyone I meet online and on the road – from parents to students to teachers to first responders.
As I think about this question, it brings me back to when Alissa and I first started Safe and Sound Schools. We never imagined that 20 beautiful and innocent young students and six dedicated school staff and teachers would lose their lives to a horrible tragedy on December 14, 2012 in Newtown, Connecticut. We never imagined that our own children, Josephine and Emilie, would be among the names of the children killed that day. We never imagined how much our lives would change, including those of our families and the world around us.
We just knew that after what happened, we had to do something. We had to make sure that what happened at Sandy Hook didn’t happen anywhere else.
In creating Safe and Sound Schools, Alissa and I believed that we needed to educate communities and empower them to make school safety a priority. But through our travels, we found out that school safety issues varied from state to state, city to city. Communities want resources. Students want to get involved in the school safety conversation. Parents want to know what steps and policies are in place to protect their children at school. First responders want to be prepared for any type of crisis that happens at a school. And we want everyone to be safe and sound. But how do we get there?
To provide more resources, get students involved, and continue the school safety conversation online and on the ground, we need your help. We cannot do this work alone. We need everyone to be a part of the Change for School Safety. By collecting loose change and saving it as donation to give on #GivingTuesday (November 29), you can make a difference in school safety.
- Continue to travel to communities and empower them to put school safety first;
- Develop and share student-centered programs that will encourage students to speak out and do something about school safety issues affecting them; and
- Connect with school administrators, mental health and emergency professionals, and parents with the resources they need to keep their schools and students safe and sound.
There is so much work to be done. But in the words of Richard Bach, we know that “a tiny change today can bring a dramatically different tomorrow.”
Will you be part of the change for school safety?
To find out more about being a part of Change for School Safety, click here.
Michele Gay, Co-founder & Executive Director of Safe and Sound Schools
Earlier this month, Safe and Sound Schools participated in the Understanding the Digital Disconnect – Parents, Teens and the Internet Twitter chat hosted by stopthinkconnect.org.
Modern day technology has drastically changed the ways in which we consume and relay information. Today’s media and communication landscape is much different than what we experienced as kids. As a result, today’s parents are faced with the growing challenge of raising tech savvy kids in a digital world without having lived through a “connected” childhood themselves.
After a summer of reconnecting with my kids, I fear losing them again to the stresses and digital social lives that comes with back to school. Sure, the internet and the growing number of social media outlets provide our kids with an opportunity to explore the world and socialize with friends, but the thought of cyberbullying, predators, or losing interest in the real world is frightening for many parents.
The #ChatSTC provided some good insights, whether your kids are new to social/digital media, or if you just need a refresher after the summer. Key tips from the chat include:
- Talk to your kids. With the back to school season underway, a family tech talk discussion lends itself to perfect opportunity to remind your kids about the dangers of sharing personal information, location, and other types of content that may give predators insight into their life.
- Explain the “why.” Parents can help students understand the reasoning behind tech/digital rules and/or restrictions by maintaining open dialogue, explaining their rationale, and helping them see the consequences of certain actions with supporting online news stories, and periodically checking in.
- Involve your schools. Today’s schools can help children navigate the digital world safely by teaching healthy concepts of digital use and serving as a resource for parents who would like more information about the digital disconnect their child may be experiencing. Ask your students how they are using and talking about tech in the classroom. In addition, your child’s school counselor, psychologist, and tech specialist offer additional resources and insights to help bridge the digital divide.
You can browse below if you’d like to explore more content related to the Twitter chat.
Schools across the nation have spent the summer preparing for a safe school year. Among those preparations, many schools are examining and introducing new protocols such as those designed to protect students and staff in an active assailant (intruder or attacker) scenario.
Recently, a mother reached out for perspective following the introduction of active assailant training at her daughter’s middle school. This mother (we’ll call her Susie) is well-educated, informed on community and school issues, and lives in an excellent school district. She received an email from her child’s school about the new program and learned that school staff had already been trained and were prepared to introduce the program to students the next week. Although surprised at the quick turnaround, Susie recognized the threat of an active assailant at school as a rare one, but like most parents, she could not help but be concerned about the possibility.
When Susie’s daughter came home from school after the training, Susie asked her how it went. “Well, basically Mom, it’s every man for himself,” replied the young girl.
Determined to remain calm and objective, Susie took a deep breath and gently pressed for more information. “How did my daughter walk away with that idea?” she wondered. Susie knew one thing for sure: this was not what the school staff had intended.
We encouraged Susie to share this experience with the school to help staff better develop and deliver safety protocols, instruction, and training.
Throughout the process, Susie shared some key takeaways with us:
- Parent Education and Preparation: Susie first learned, via email, about the upcoming training only one week before introduction. Parent meetings, forums for discussion, and plenty of notice allow for questions, alleviate fears, and build community around new programs.
- Parent Support: The school’s initial email provided parents with some conversation starters to facilitate discussion at home. Susie found this helpful in preparing her daughter ahead of the training. Though afterward, Susie didn’t receive any follow up about how it went or how she could support this new learning at home. Follow-up conversation guides can help parents support student preparedness and monitor their child’s adjustment to new protocols.
- Opportunities for Discussion and Feedback: Susie’s daughter said the training made her feel better about getting to safety in an emergency; but, her daughter had lots of questions following the training. Inviting student (and parent) questions and observations following instruction and/or training is essential to any school-based programming.
- Student Support: Susie learned that teachers introduced the new program along with the school guidance counselor. This let Susie know that the school was attending to the social-emotional needs of students through the process. Guidance and monitoring from school-based mental health providers (i.e. guidance counselors, psychologists, and social workers) can help identify specific student and staff needs for such instruction and training.
We encourage schools to learn from experiences like these, keep parents and students actively involved, and continually examine programs and practices in order to move forward together for safer schools.
Check out these related resources for educators and parents:
The Lockdown Drill, Who Let the Dog In? and Police In Our School, children’s books by Deputy Becky Coyle
Safe and Sound Tools for Safety Education:
Developmental Levels of Safety Awareness
Hierarchy of Education and Training Activities
Stay Safe Choices
Best Practice Considerations for Schools in Active Shooter and Other Assailant Drills from NASP and NASRO
Michele Gay, Co-founder and Executive Director of Safe and Sound Schools