School safety is a hot topic in schools, communities, and legislatures across the country, and rightfully so. We all know that if students do not feel safe in school, attendance and achievement will be directly and negatively impacted with potential effects like dropping out of school or suicide attempts. Similarly, if teachers do not feel safe and supported in their building, quality teachers will quickly move to safer schools or leave the profession altogether. As school leaders, school safety is a constant concern and one that can keep us up at night. While some school safety matters are outside of our control, the way the adults in the building treat students, the expectations we have and communicate to students, and the camaraderie between students and faculty can be focal points of our culture which can keep our students safe on a daily basis.
In Georgia, our new governor, Brian Kemp added substantial funding to his budget that is earmarked for school safety. As much as Governor Kemp’s measures are appreciated and will reduce threats to the well-being of our students, school culture cannot be legislated and our students and staff deserve to learn and to work in a safe and thriving school culture.
While drugs, fights, weapons, etc. are most closely associated with school safety, bullying awareness and mental health must remain at the forefront of a school leader’s building of a positive school culture. Unsurprisingly, a victim of bullying suffers academically simply by worrying about his/her tormentor instead of his/her academics. What’s even more concerning than bullying affecting students academically, is how victims of bullying are more likely to attempt suicide. As school leaders, we must: thoroughly investigate all reports of bullying, notify both the parents of the alleged victim and the alleged bully of the results of the investigation, and provide consequences to the bully, if the investigation deems it appropriate.
School safety, which ranges from outside intruders to bullying, rests on the shoulders of each and every member of the school community. In addition to typical security measures like video cameras and safety personnel, we have included some specific ways our culture involves each stakeholder in school safety and works to diminish risks for the safety of our staff and students.
- Communicate expectations early and often – Beginning in the spring with rising 8th-graders and their parents/guardians, topics such as vaping, social media issues, and bullying are addressed head-on so that both parents and students know our standards. Behavioral and safety expectations are repetitively communicated in the first days of the new school year as well as at various points of the year.
- Deliver on consequences – Even though we are intentional about setting a culture that is contradictory to drugs, alcohol, weapons, vapes, etc. While students will undoubtedly bring these items to school on rare occasions, we follow through with appropriate consequences that have been thoroughly explained multiple times to students.
- Hallway and restroom supervision – We require teachers to be in the hallways during class changes to monitor students in crowded hallways. We also have a rotation of teachers who monitor the restrooms during class changes. If a fight, drug deal, or drug use is going to happen, the restroom is typically where it happens. Once a class has started, students must sign out of class, take a pass, and turn in their cell phone before going to the restroom.
- Learn student names – Because we only have 180 days with our students before they transition out of the 9th-grade academy, it is imperative that teachers, certified staff, administrators, administrative assistants, nutrition workers, and other adults in the building get to know as many students by name as quickly as possible. The simple act of looking at a student in the eye and addressing him/her by name can help the student feel comfortable enough to report any issues he/she may have noticed or have experienced. Additionally, building rapport with students will make them more receptive to your interventions when you notice something is off about a student.
- Take it seriously – Students may express their frustration, depression, or anxiety through threats of self-harm. Any such comment, even if made in jest, should be reported to administration and investigated by a school counselor and/or mental health professional. Even seemingly innocent comments could have serious underlying meaning to them. Acknowledging them could be the difference between life and death.
- Open communication with parents – Our teachers and counselor are encouraged to make contact with a parent/guardian when something seems off with a student. We were given a natural intuition for a purpose, and nothing negative comes from calling a parent/guardian and expressing concern for their student.
- “See Something, Say Something” – It’s more than just a catchy saying, “See Something, Say Something” is a major component of our culture. Students and staff have heard this motto and seen the posters around the school, and students who violate the code of conduct and present a safety concern to their classmates know that their peers will report it and will not accept anything that jeopardizes their safety.
- Use technology to your advantage – Our school system is the first school system in the nation to have an app in which students can report safety concerns directly to an administrator and their School Resource Officer. Through this app, students have reported safety concerns and the school administration have been able to immediately address their concern, regardless of the time or day a report was made. Having this app has empowered students and given them a real sense of being an integral part of keeping each other safe.
- Empower your custodians – If a door has been propped open, if a student is acting suspiciously, if there is a questionable individual in the parking lot, or something just feels off, school custodians will probably be the first to notice it. Your custodians should carry a radio (for more than just being quickly available to clean up messes), continuously check the security of exterior doors, and be trained to initiate a lockdown.
A positive school culture sets the tone for a school that does not tolerate bullying, a setting in which each student is valued, and an environment where students and parents have active roles in the school safety. Without a culture that ensures student and staff safety as much as possible, academics and attendance will suffer. What are strategies your school has implemented to promote a safe school through your school’s culture? We would love to hear feedback from our readers as we continuously seek to improve and learn.
Cover photo taken from School Talk.
This blog was written by David Leenman. Mr. Leenman is in his 13th year of education. He has served in both middle and high schools. Before becoming an assistant principal, Mr. Leenman worked in special education and history and coached basketball, football, and soccer.