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three pillars

It Never Ends - 3 Elements of School Safety

Kelly Moore
January 17, 2023

In the past we have discussed what school safety is from a philosophical point of view. This week we want to explore the different components of school safety and why they are important. Last week we discussed the importance of the human element in the school safety process, for without a strong human element everything else fails. I like to explain it this way; most of us remember the “Fire Triangle” where you need heat, fuel and oxygen for fire to burn. If you take away one of those elements the fire will no longer burn. School safety is very similar. You need three aspects of safety where, when they are all present and working together, your school will be as safe as possible. In my opinion, the three crucial elements of school safety are: Systems, People and Policies. If one or more of those pillars are missing, your safety is in jeopardy. Of course it is not as simple as buying systems, hiring people and jotting down a few policies. They all need to serve a purpose and work/ function at the time they are needed in order to protect your schools. Let’s take a closer look at these three pillars, but first let’s revisit the federal guidelines for creating a solid safety program: Prevention/mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. The purpose of reviewing these factors is so that we completely understand that whatever we are doing related to school safety has to fit in one or more of these categories. If a system doesn’t fit into prevention, preparedness, response, or recovery, then it doesn’t not belong in your safety program.The same goes for the development of your policies and the training and professional development of your staff.  

In a high functioning school safety program, your schools will always be in some operational status. They will either be completely operational, completely non-operational, or somewhere in between. From a school safety perspective, that means they are either in the prevention/mitigation phase, preparedness phase, response phase or in the recovery phase. Depending on the size of your school district, you may have different schools in any or all of these phases. Everyday when we come to work, we should make sure that we understand which phase we are in. This will set the mindset of your school community as to what they should be doing; preventing/mitigating something from occurring, preparing for what might happen, responding to something that is happening, and/or recovering from something that has just occurred or is occurring.  

Now let’s talk about school safety ecosystems. As the name implies, a school safety ecosystem is a collection of systems, policies and people's involvement when working symbiotically to provide for the safety of a school and/or school district. The key to its success is the phrase, working symbiotically; meaning together. Just this morning, I participated in a conversation with other safety practitioners regarding the question; would metal detectors have prevented the tragic shooting by a 6 year old student of his teacher. If not, then what would have prevented that incident? Within that discussion, there were accounts of schools (not the particular school where the incident occurred) of having metal detectors, but unplugging them because they created too much work for staff. Well obviously, those detectors would not have worked. Have you ever seen a metal detector operational where there wasn’t someone monitoring it? If you have, then you don’t have a safety system, you have an expensive box that just beeps every time someone walks through it. Time for a Kelly Story...

When I was a commander for a sheriff’s department in California, I was asked to develop a drone program. My first question was, who is going to operate the drones within this program. Of course the SWAT team said they would. But when I pointed out that would mean that 2 or 3 of their highly trained officers would no longer be available to respond to calls because they would be operating the drones, they backed out of their offer to provide staffing. There are very few systems that can be operated without staff resources; for every “toy” you buy, you have to pay someone to play with that toy.  And the person designated to play with the toy can’t be responsible for some other critical function, that will become their new primary responsibility during an emergency. Okay, let’s get back to the three pillars of school safety: systems, policies and people. As we look closer at these pillars, think about where they belong within the operational phases of your schools: prevention/mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.

Systems are those things and/or processes that are put into place to help keep your schools safe. There are as many different systems available as there are problems to be solved. The key understanding is that systems, generally speaking, provide us data to make decisions and/or activate another system or process. Here we are talking about systems, like communications and alerting systems, access control, visitor management, student/staff information systems, video surveillance, motion or other sensors, student/staff accountability, transportation, anonymous reporting, threat and behavioral management and intervention, etc. If you are not receiving information and data from your system that is actionable, then it is just a monitoring system that allows you to go back and see what happened after the fact.

Policies drive everything you do within your organization and in particular your school safety program. Policies set the foundation and formation of your school safety teams, along with the expectations of the school board in regards to who does what, when and how often. Policies give authority to enforce those expectations should they not be met and the consequences for those who do not follow them. Remember the metal detector story above? Who is responsible for making sure those metal detectors are operational? Who is responsible for the monitoring of those machines to make sure no one comes into the school with something they shouldn’t have? What training do they need and how often do they need to receive updated training and to show competency? All of this should be set by the policies of the school district. If your policies don’t support every aspect of your safety program, someone needs to start writing them. That will likely be you if it hasn’t already been designated.

People, as we have discussed many times previously, are likely the most important part of your school safety program and also the great point of failure. The core functionality of the Incident Command System (ICS) is that there is someone assigned to complete every function within an incident. The person has to be trained properly and reports to a single person who is responsible for that functional area (Operations, Planning/Intel, Logistics, and Finance/Administration). It is no different in a school safety program. For every function that has been identified, someone has to be responsible for the completion of that function. Let’s take a look at a prevention function: providing a supportive and positive school environment. Who is responsible for that function? While you might designate the principal as the person who is ultimately responsible, what are they responsible for? Establishing the program where the expectations are set? Training the staff appropriately? Creating a sufficient reporting and tracking system? The answer to these questions is YES to all. While the principal may be responsible for the overall program, there are many others who are responsible for specific components of that program; likely everyone will have some responsibility within that program and many other programs and systems as well.  The key to engaging your staff is to ensure they know what their responsibilities are, what your expectations are and that you train them properly.

The fact is, school safety is a never ending process of learning and building upon past experiences and the experiences of others. Even if you are relying on systems to protect your schools, you can’t install them and forget about them. School Safety is a monster that needs constant attention and needs to be fed often. If you neglect the monster, it will bite you hard.

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