Educators and students need to feel safe and secure in their schools to thrive academically and socially. Yet ensuring school safety can be challenging.
School administrators are responsible for creating and implementing safety protocols and policies. But school safety requires the involvement of many stakeholders — including local emergency services.
Cyberbullying is one of the most pressing school safety issues. Bullied students can suffer from a variety of psychological problems including depression, anxiety and low self-esteem. They can also experience difficulty concentrating in class and poor performance. Many children who are bullied or cyberbullied drop out of extracurricular activities, stop asking questions in class and even isolate themselves. These factors can have a negative impact on their social life and future job prospects.
Students who are a victim of cyberbullying may not tell anyone because they do not want the bullying to get worse or because they don’t think adults can help them. Parents can encourage their kids to report online abuse and support them if they do so. They can also limit their kids’ access to technology and set strict rules about what they can and cannot do on their devices.
There are a number of ways teachers can promote positive and safe classroom cultures to prevent cyberbullying. One way is by incorporating lessons and activities related to cyberbullying into the classroom curriculum. This can range from discussing norms of communication in the digital age to using historical examples of propaganda and hate speech to exploring a bullying situation in a book your class is reading.
When students understand that their words and actions can have permanent consequences they are more likely to think twice before posting anything online. It’s also important to emphasize that cyberbullying is a serious crime that can result in physical or emotional harm and may even lead to suicide. Students who have higher levels of resilience are less likely to be negatively impacted by cyberbullying. It’s important for teachers to be aware of the signs that their students are being cyberbullied and to address them quickly.
Natural disasters are unpredictable and can have a significant impact on school safety. They can disrupt student and family daily routines, destroy schools, and even lead to displacement from local communities. As the world becomes more populated, schools are becoming more vulnerable to natural disasters.
In fact, bad weather and natural disasters are responsible for the majority of school closures each year1.
While it is tempting to label all events caused by nature as a “natural disaster,” the term misleads people into thinking that these tragedies are inevitable, and that we are at their mercy. This falsehood leads to a lack of responsibility in the prevention and preparation of these events. Using the term “natural” also leads to a perception of inevitability when it comes to assessing and mitigating risks, and ultimately in distributing financial resources for risk reduction, compensation, and insurance.
When natural disasters occur, schools must be able to respond quickly and efficiently. This requires clear communication amongst all stakeholders, including students, families, teachers, and local communities. Using a digital emergency communication platform is one of the best ways to ensure that everyone has access to school safety plans and can communicate with each other during and after a disaster. This way, schools can coordinate with local organizations, transit, and emergency management to prevent disruptions in the educational process and provide shelter when needed.
During and after a natural disaster, schools can face high levels of absenteeism, school relocations, and damage to buildings. These occurrences are a reminder of the role that schools play in their surrounding communities, and that they must be prepared to provide children with safe spaces that will help them rebuild their lives.
Active Shooter Incidents
In light of the recent tragedies of school shootings, it is natural for parents and communities to want to see some type of action taken in schools. Unfortunately, many of the actions taken have negative consequences on students’ well-being.
For example, a common response to an active shooter incident is to disperse students throughout the facility, which allows them to escape the gunfire but can also create confusion and increases the difficulty of accounting for all students in the event of an emergency. In addition, a shooter may take advantage of the confusion to move around and gain access to more people, which could increase the number of victims and increase the likelihood of injury or death.
Furthermore, there are no one-size-fits-all plans for protecting schools and other educational facilities. Instead, the best option is to develop a plan that includes a variety of protective factors and responds to specific situations just like having an incident management system.
For example, an effective approach might include ensuring that students know how to evacuate a building, where the nearest exits are located, and what to do if they become separated from their classmates. Additionally, it might involve developing a communication plan for students and families to use in case of an emergency, limiting the amount of time that teachers spend communicating with central office personnel during an incident, and allowing the principal to make autonomous decisions when possible. Finally, it might include avoiding drills that simulate actual incidents, notifying parents and students in advance of planned drills, creating age and developmentally appropriate content in conjunction with teachers and school-based mental health specialists, and combining these exercises with support systems to address student well-being.
While prevention and mitigation are important components to school safety, schools must be prepared for the instances that can occur despite preventive measures. Whether a student has a medical emergency or a threat is reported, it’s essential that school administrators have a school safety plan in place to respond accordingly.
Teachers and school staff also need to be able to report medical emergencies in a timely manner. Many students are living with health conditions like asthma, which can have serious consequences if not managed properly. For example, if a student has an episode where they faint, it can be difficult for the teacher to know what to do in the moment because they aren’t always able to reach the nurse or call an administrator.
Having a clear, simple school safety policy that allows teachers and other staff to quickly report medical emergencies can help mitigate any potential risk to the child or other students. This will ensure that the student is receiving the appropriate care and attention and will help to reduce the number of incidents.
In the past, it was common for NYPD school safety agents and officers to intervene in behavioral incidents, on average over 50 times per day citywide. This is an alarming number and can impact students and parents negatively. It is important that schools address these behaviors through social problem-solving programs and other strategies for prevention, as well as develop discipline systems that are fair and equitable.
School safety is a shared responsibility and must include all stakeholders – from local first responders to school administration. Having effective, clearly communicated school safety protocols and procedures is critical to the overall success of the educational environment.
Suicide is a complex issue with high risks for some students. It is essential that schools understand how to recognize and respond to the signs of suicidal thinking or behavior in students. The school must contact appropriate caregivers when a student exhibits these behaviors; this may include parents or guardians, teachers, counselors, social workers, or school psychologists. If the behavior is a suspected act of child abuse protective services must be contacted. It is important that the staff member who contacts family members has a good understanding of the culture of the student and their families, including attitudes toward suicide, mental health, privacy, and help-seeking.
The school should also have a plan for removing lethal means (i.e., guns, medications) when a student is identified as being at risk. A well-publicized, easily accessible tip line should be available for students to report concerns. It is recommended that schools implement a suicide prevention curriculum and provide training for students and faculty. The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide offers a free two-hour staff awareness training, Making Educators Partners in Youth Suicide Prevention: Act on FACTS.
A student’s suicide risk can increase following a number of situations, including getting into trouble with school or legal authorities; losses of relationships or opportunities; and life changes like moving or the transition to college. These events can lead to a state of being where a person feels helpless or hopeless and can become the “tipping point” toward suicide.
It is also recommended that schools educate their staff about the prevalence of bullying and harassment among transgender and gender non-conforming adolescents who are at increased risk of suicidal behavior. Finally, a comprehensive MTSS that includes a focus on universal supports and prevention, a positive school climate, targeted support for at-risk groups and individuals, and emergency services (Tier III) is a critical component to improving school safety.