Making Schools Safe

Published September 1, 2000

A safe school is more than a place where students and staff behave safely. It is also a place where the physical plant and grounds are safe for students and staff.

School safety is not the primary responsibility of school authorities: learning is. Responsibility for safety lies primarily with the community in which the school resides. The formation of a School Safety Advisory Board is recommended to provide for consistent, high-quality monitoring and shared responsibility for all aspects of school safety.

Safety on the school campus requires constant monitoring by professionals, internal stakeholders, and community members. The two key questions to consider are:

  • Which areas are most important to monitor?
  • Who will do the monitoring?

The first question is easier to answer than the second. Assigning responsibility is often a difficult task, and school safety is no different. Faculty, staff, students, and parents must embrace a solution that involves sharing the responsibility for safety monitoring.

Physical Plant Safety

Critical safety components of a school’s physical plant and grounds usually include the following:

  • safe campus buildings, grounds, storage, and engineering, plus utility systems free from environmental hazards;
  • safe buildings, grounds, and utility systems free from environmental hazards on properties abutting the school;
  • adequate lighting, security, and sight lines to guard against potential assaults, bullying, or unauthorized visitors or activities on campus; and,
  • safe transportation, access to, and egress from the school grounds.

These components should be scrutinized thoroughly prior to the beginning of each school year or return from any school break or vacation. The school administrator and facilities manager should have a complete systems checklist, preferably embedded in the school’s safety and critical incident response plan, that is used to secure and maintain safety throughout the school’s physical environment. It is recommended that systems checks should be done at least once a week.

The areas subject to the least direct monitoring are the properties abutting the school grounds. These areas can be monitored effectively if the property owners are invited to become members of the School Safety Advisory Board. As members, they can learn about the minimum environmental safety standards the school requests they maintain and also how the school is monitoring and maintaining safety standards for its physical plant. A school that emphasizes safety is a good neighbor, and nearby property owners are likely to appreciate the school’s effort.

Student Behavior

The more difficult safety components to measure, monitor, or control are the behaviors of students and, sometimes, school staff. Although “safe” behaviors defy a simple definition, the Centers for Disease Control in Atlanta identifies specific child and adolescent behaviors that lead to increased fighting, disruption in the classroom, drug use and abuse, weapons and drug trafficking, suicide, violence, and truancy.

Essential safety components with respect to the behaviors of students and staff include the following:

  • ongoing revisions of the school’s Parent-Student Handbook, staff manual, and staff contracts to reflect changes in local, state, and federal laws concerning threats of violence, suicide attempts, sexual harassment and assault, carrying objects of unreasonable use, using or distributing contraband, bullying, disruptive behavior in the classroom, and truancy;
  • clearly stated policies in the Parent-Student Handbook regarding suspension and expulsion hearings, and return to school after acute psychiatric hospitalizations;
  • formal orientation sessions for all parents, students, and school staff regarding the policies published in the school’s Parent-Student Handbook and staff manuals;
  • complete and accurate student census data including current medical and behavioral health records; and,
  • an adequate number of competently trained and motivated behavioral health staff, either school employees or subcontracted, school-based, behavioral health care providers.

When established, the School Safety Advisory Board acts as the primary monitoring system for the school’s safety. Members of the Board should include owners of abutting properties, students and school staff, and neighborhood, city, and state leaders who are dedicated to providing technical assistance on school and community safety issues in both the physical plant and safe behavior areas. Other potential members of the Advisory Board may include youth service workers, police officers, a representative from the Mayor’s Office, and a representative from the local church council.

Broad-based board membership allows the school to share with its community the responsibility of keeping children safe during school hours. Including students on the Board gives them an important and legitimate voice in planning for their own safety. With broad-based membership, the Board becomes an essential part of the safety monitoring process because such a multidisciplinary, community-based group offers a school the best chance to monitor and respond to both stable and changing trends in the behaviors of students and in the community surrounding the school.

Robert Macy, director of community services for the Trauma Center in Boston, Massachusetts, is working with the United Nations/UNICEF and the Turkish Ministry of National Education to design, implement, and manage a school-based, traumatic stress intervention program for 75,000 children left homeless by recent earthquakes. Macy also is the primary content provider for PLANet, school crisis planning and management software. He can be reached at [email protected] or 800/634-2016.