School safety is a delicate, politically sensitive subject in many districts, and school administrators may be closed-mouthed, defensive or even in denial about how safe their buildings are from student or intruder violence. Parents need to know this and ask school administrators and school boards about the following:
Security and emergency preparedness equipment and plans – Are the plans up to date and tested? Has the staff been fully trained? Ask “in a supportive, nonaccusatory way,” suggests Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. “It’s not an issue of pointing fingers; it’s saying, ‘Here’s what we expect. How can we help?’”
The overall school environment – Delbert Elliott, Ph.D., director of the Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence, recommends that schools do a school climate survey among students and staff every few years: “Is it a climate where everyone is treated fairly, where there is no need to carry weapons, where there’s not a lot of fighting and disrespect going on?”
Bullying prevention – “Most states have some kind of legislation requiring a bullying program,” Elliott says. “If there’s a level of bullying at a school, they should not only have a policy about bullying but a program in place to deal with it. The first question is, ‘Do they have a policy and are they actually enforcing it uniformly?’”
Suspensions, expulsions and violent incidents – Talk with teachers informally and ask whether they really have time to teach or spend a lot of time disciplining students, Elliott suggests.
If you’re not satisfied with the answers you’re getting, seek support from other parents in the community and approach the school district with offers to help. “Sometimes it takes something like packing a board meeting with 60 people,” Elliott says. “If parents go in and say, ‘We’re just concerned about our kids. Can we help you? Can we get a parent group together to come in and make some recommendations?’ – that can make the difference.”
What Does a Safe School Look Like?
Learn more in Is Your Child’s School Safe from Violence? Beyond Locks and Metal Detectors
• Center for the Study and Prevention of Violence at the University of Colorado at Boulder – Offers a blueprint by which school safety and violence prevention programs can be measured and certified. Provides statistics about bullying, school violence and kids’ thoughts on school safety.
• National School Safety and Security Services – Includes questions parents can ask school administrators about safety, violence prevention and emergency plans.
• U.S. Department of Education – Lists the characteristics of a safe school and features a report to President Bush following the spring 2007 shootings at Virginia Tech and an opportunity to share ideas on ways to keep students safe.
Deirdre Wilson is a senior editor for Dominion Parenting Media.