When I entered teaching, I never thought I would need to become an expert in school safety. It wasn’t on my radar beyond routine fire and tornado drills. When I was a principal, well before Columbine, we left exterior doors unlocked most of the time and routinely had parents and students access the campus freely. I’ll never forget a conversation with an angry parent who was frustrated that she could no longer walk into the back door of the school whenever she wanted. Safety is not convenient.
Since then, especially in recent months, our sense of security has been shaken with multiple tragic events in schools and churches. Each occurrence leaves in its wake a traumatized, heart- broken community and a society at large that feels less safe. As school administrators, people often turn to us for answers, but the answers are much more complex than one would think, and they are different for each community. Formulating them requires conversations with staff, boards, parents, law enforcement and safety experts. Every time we hire a security officer we have to give up a teacher, instructional coach, assistant principal or custodian.
After each event, we re-examine and implement new safety procedures. We do our safety audits. We purchase automatic locks, put “lock-blocks” on classroom doors, hire police forces, practice drills, do background checks on visitors, install cameras, build safety vestibules, etc., etc. This comes at a financial cost because no additional state funding is allotted for safety. Every time we hire a security officer we have to give up a teacher, instructional coach, assistant principal or custodian. We have to be thoughtful about which safety expenses have the most leverage and the least impact on learning.
Financial costs are not the only challenges. While we have to keep our schools as safe as possible, we don’t want them to feel like prisons. We want our communities to feel connected to their schools and encouraged to attend events so they can build strong bonds with our teachers and coaches.
Finally, we have to deal with fear. While we must acknowledge safety concerns and mitigate those as much as possible, we also have to be the voice of reason and calm. We cannot let fear overtake our decision-making. That is a difficult balance to strike. Then there is the fact that it is impossible to completely prevent tragedies in a free society. That is a heavy burden.
As school leaders, we have to be a big part of the conversation on how to provide security for our communities. As we do so, we must ask ourselves why these shootings are occurring. What are the complex issues our children face that cause them to disconnect from society and have such anger and anxiety that they commit violent acts? How can we attend to their mental health issues and keep all children connected and engaged in school as well as to their communities so they feel they belong?
TASA is committed to helping you answer these questions in a way that works best for your community. The theme of our summer conference in June was school safety, and we brought in experts as well as colleagues who shared what they have learned from their own tragedies. This is a societal issue, not just a school issue, but we as school leaders have an important role to play. Our aim is to help equip you to take on this challenge.
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