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Communication as a First Step in School Safety

Greg Peterson
May 7, 2019

CrisisGo recently co-hosted a school safety roundtable with school district representatives from the Saint Louis area. During the meeting, Levaughn Smart, Director of Security for Kirkwood School District spoke about the importance of communication during an emergency.

Smart, a former law enforcement officer and seasoned school safety professional, shared some insight about the importance of safety communication in schools. He described communication issues his district had in the past by explaining that there is a high school campus and an elementary school campus 200 yards away, but despite their short distance, the buildings did not engage in communication.

"Nobody from the right hand ever knew what the left hand was doing. Period," stated Smart. He informed that his schools were completely unaware if other schools in the district were experiencing problems, which was an issue he endeavored to fix.

Smart also recognized the need to strengthen the emergency plans for the district. He stated, "When you say, 'emergency plan,' it was literally a four-page plan that dealt with an earthquake, a fire, a tornado, and an intruder. That’s what we had." Smart saw that the plan needed to be more robust and cover more safety risks, while prioritizing the most likely emergency situations.

To help improve their communication and manage their safety resources, Kirkwood turned to a digital safety and crisis response platform that allowed them to communicate and access their emergency protocols through an app available on smartphones, tablets, and computers.

Real safety communication
According to Smart, they recently used their digital safety platform when there was a power outage in the district.

He stated, "At the district level, we were able to watch the communication that was going on at two separate schools; see what they needed; go over our facts, priorities, and pending actions; deal with that; answer their questions at two different locations; and get them all the resources they need."

Smart informed that throughout the situation, other campuses were not disturbed by the situation, but administrators from other sites were able to offer assistance and see the district response team check off actionable items as they went through the response.

Having an advanced system for safety communication allowed Kirkwood to keep all the appropriate stakeholders in the loop without causing a disturbance across the district. The transparent nature of the communication also allowed safety leaders for the district to observe the response process in real-time and base their actions on the needs of the situation.

Including first responders
According to Smart, Kirkwood made sure that their school staff and law enforcement were connected in communication through their digital safety platform. He stated, "We started with teachers and every employee that was ours. We tied in all our SROs in our buildings, a police chief, two captains, a sergeant, and a lieutenant."

When asked about the process of communicating with first responders through their digital safety platform, Smart stated: "It escalates up to our police department, so they can do their thing. And they’re getting real-time information."

By creating a direct connection with first responders, local law enforcement can be informed of an emergency and begin the response process right away. Not only are responders given advanced warning, they are also able to connect with the district in communication to ask questions and provide information.

Safety communication is for all staff
Smart also demonstrated that safety communication is key for all staff members, not just teachers and admin.

He noted the many different ways they can use their safety platform for communication, and Smart stated: "I think it's an invaluable tool, and I know our maintenance guys love it because when they’re up on the roof working on the HVAC system, they’ve got no clue what’s going on.” Smart said they’ve asked him how they would know if an active shooter or emergency was occurring, and he showed them how to utilize their safety platform via the app.

Smart also stated, "We even used it when we have kids in different buildings that have different needs. Whoever the supports are for that kid, that is their communication tool." He explained that if a special needs student leaves class, they can communicate to support the students’ needs.

Another example Smart gave was that if a student is hurt on a field trip, you can simply open the app and long hold on the students name to access the emergency contact information instead of digging around for a binder of information. He also stated, "We've used it for sporting events. The coaches are all sold on it."

Kirkwood's regular use of their digital safety platform demonstrates that safety communication is not limited to specific safety leaders or catastrophic events. Safety communication occurs every day, and it can affect many different people. By allowing every staff member to stay connected in communication, school districts can improve safety for every stakeholder.

Potential pushback from staff
When asked if his district requires staff to put the school safety app on their personal devices, Smart stated: "If it's a device we own, it's required to be on there, so we can communicate with you."

He went on to say that they have an assistant principal that tells staff members that they don’t have to have the school safety app on their phone; however, they expect the employee to take their safety binder and update the student roster every day for every class, keep every map of every school up-to-date, and make sure that every emergency plan and all internal emergency contacts are updated since the app can do all of that.

Smart said that they strongly encourage their staff to put the app on their personal devices, and he said that he tells people that if they can have luxury or entertainment apps on their phone, they can have an emergency communication app. He explained that it doesn't really cost the staff member anything to put the app on their phone, and it lets them, at a minimum, stay in the loop if an emergency occurs at their school.

When it comes to staff members who lack smartphones or don't want to put the app on their personal device, Smart recommended teaming them up with a "battle buddy" who has the app, and he noted that staff should be working in teams anyways.

Utilizing a digital safety platform for school safety
After Kirkwood initially looked for a digital safety platform to help strengthen and provide organization to their safety communication and emergency protocols, they decided CrisisGo's safety platform would be best suited to accomplish their needs.

Smart stated, "We started with CrisisGo, and that's where we started dumping all of our action steps in [for emergency plans], but the biggest piece was it showed us the communication aspect. That is how I actually brought the school district in and got everyone to approve it."

He indicated that the communication through CrisisGo greatly benefits the admin teams. Smart explained that they still use two-way radios, but not every staff member has a radio. He stated, "With 1,000 employees, we had a way to reach 1,000 employees." And Smart added, "We use it to communicate and communicate often."

In conclusion: Focus on communication
Smart concluded his talk by emphasizing the importance of focusing on and strengthening whatever communication system districts have for safety: "At the end of the day, it's a lot of stuff to think about, but you have to do what works for you. But the communication piece, no matter what it is, please do that."

During his talk, Smart stressed the importance of strengthening safety communication, but he acknowledged that not all school districts are on the same level of needs when it comes to school safety.

Though many school safety concerns are similar, many districts find themselves with unique safety needs. It can be difficult to know what all needs to be addressed and how to go about making strategic safety changes for the district.

CrisisGo has created a school safety self-assessment to help districts evaluate their school safety needs and plan improvements based on their most pressing needs. We encourage you to take the assessment and see how your district is doing with school safety.

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