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Corner on Safety

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Zero Tolerance

Dennis Lewis
Date of Post
Sep 27, 2009

Zero Tolerance - What does it really mean?

You know you’re having a bad day when CNN arrives at school. But it isn’t just an act of school violence that may result in media scrutiny. It may be a student disciplinary suspension resulting from a district’s position of "zero tolerance." Bad day? Indeed.

Do these events sound familiar? 

  • A student is suspended for bringing a small knife, packed by her mother for the purpose of peeling an apple at lunch
  • A five year old kindergarten boy is suspended for kissing a girl on the playground
  • A boy is suspended for giving his cousin a cold medicine tablet for which both students had a prescription

All occurred under the philosophy of zero tolerance without consideration of mitigating factors. So why has zero tolerance suddenly become a hot button issue?  When did the term begin to impact the educational system?  Where did it al begin?

During the Reagan presidential administration of the 1980’s, the term zero tolerance became a slogan and part of the national campaign in the war on drug trafficking and substance abuse. The term was meant to imply that we, as a national public, would not tolerate the sale, use, or possession of illegal drugs and those participating in these activities would face a judicial system offering little latitude in terms of prosecution and/or sentencing. In fact, public sentiment and the courts espoused the idea that when drug couriers were apprehended, they would be given the maximum sentence allowed under the law.  

Congress passed the Gun-Free Schools Act in 1994 requiring any state receiving federal funds to suspend or expel, for at least one calendar year, any student who brought a firearm to school. Though the law allowed a district’s chief administrative officer to modify the discipline on a case by case basis, the perception among educators was that a definitive line had been drawn to address difficult issue of school violence.

Over the last several years this same term - zero tolerance - has now become part of the vernacular with educators and the public related to a variety of behavioral offenses. It is most commonly associated within a student code of conduct addressing issues such as weapons, sexual harassment, drug possession or distribution, etc. Within the proper context, it appropriately communicates a strong message to school communities about what will and will not be allowed on a school campus.  

Perhaps the answer lies in how the term has been used. Zero tolerance for violent behavior and criminal acts in schools has always been the standard. No school or educational institution has ever recognized these types of behaviors as acceptable, and framed in this manner, zero tolerance makes perfect sense. However, zero tolerance has now become attached to the discipline. 

We would suggest zero tolerance not be eliminated, rather school districts rethink how the term is applied and communicated to the public. Suggestions on how to do so include: 

  1. Review all documents within the district’s policies and procedures and make certain, if the term is used, it describes the behavior and not the disciplinary consequence.
  2. Educate staff, students and parents on the appropriate use of the term, as well as how it applies to student discipline.
  3. Promote the difference between the tolerance of a behavior, as opposed to the unwavering punitive consequence.
  4. Use common sense when administering student discipline. No two circumstances are ever completely the same; as the principal, recognize it and be prepared to explain your position when necessary.
  5. Make certain disciplinary policies, practices, and procedures are prudent, measured, and reasonable. Are they a result of thoughtful review or merely an over reaction related to a specific event?

It is easy to adopt terminology that sounds good only to determine later that a clear understanding of intent was not communicated or the application of the strategy was misguided. While zero tolerance has a place in the school vernacular, it needs to be applied judiciously. With a thoughtful explanation to staff, students and parents, help them understand the original intent of the term, and use it only when it makes sense to do so.  

Staff Misconduct - When It's a Problem, It's a Big One

Dennis Lewis
Date of Post
Sep 27, 2009

School Staff and Sexual Misconduct

It’s Not a Problem ‘Til It’s a Problem – And Then It’s a Big One

Hardly a day passes without a report surfacing somewhere indicating a school employee has been accused, arrested or adjudicated for engaging in sexual misconduct with a student. For the average person, the occasional national splash of an incident may not convey the real extent of the problem, but for school principals, careful attention should be paid to these sensitive and emotionally charged incidents.

According to a report prepared for the U.S. Department of Education by Charol Shakeshaft of Hofstra University and Interactive Inc., an estimated 4.5 million students are subjected to some degree of sexual contact by a school employee between kindergarten and twelfth grade.

So what can principals do to help prevent and detect sexual misconduct by school staff?

  • Be observant of a student or staff member’s behavior and watch for unexplained changes or patterns that might be suspicious. A sudden special interest in a teacher by a student might warrant suspicion, especially if the interest goes beyond the normal school day.
  • School personnel should investigate all rumors thoroughly. While some rumors will have no merit, staff should report any unusual information to school officials immediately. Personnel should be reassured the allegation will be investigated, all individuals will be treated respectfully, and confidentiality will be strictly maintained.
  • Keep a record of all investigations. It is important to keep a written record of all complaints and investigations. Sometimes it is years later when allegations resurface and as personnel changes or memories fade, a historical perspective will be beneficial to those that must explain or conduct another review of the circumstances surrounding an allegation.
  • Remember to use a Child Abuse Hotline. If the student involved is a minor, error on the side of caution when considering whether or not to "hotline" the situation. If the information provided is not sufficient for the Division of Children’s Services to be involved, they will say so. As mandated reporters, school personnel should make the call and let others decide if further investigation is warranted.
  • Provide staff development to all staff

Professional development on this topic should include the following:

  1. Board Policy related to staff to student sexual harassment and contact
  2. Reporting procedures
  3. Expectations of privacy and confidentiality related to investigations or allegations of inappropriate behavior or conduct
  4. Reminders that all staff are part of the solution related to eliminating this type of destructive behavior
  5. Review of both the Employee and Student Handbook with careful attention paid to the topic of harassment of any kind

NOTE: It is recommended principals ask staff to provide a signature indicating these polices have been reviewed and understood.

Establish a school climate that protects innocent staff from being accused and sets parameters and boundaries for student/staff interaction.

The following tips can help with these efforts: 

  • Physical contact with students should be limited to only that which is necessary. Some students may misconstrue an innocent action by a teacher; consequently, when a staff member puts himself in a position for physical contact, especially on a repeated basis with the same student(s), it can cause some to question the motive.
  • Establish guidelines for giving of gifts and cards to students. Gifts of a personal nature given to any student should be discouraged or have administrative approval. Staff should be requested to alert a supervisor when receiving a gift from a student that may be inappropriate.
  • Except for school sanctioned events and activities, socializing with students outside of school should be prohibited. A number of cases of inappropriate relationships have surfaced when the teacher and a student were seen in a social setting or alone with each other away from school. Staff should be reminded students may misinterpret this type of activity, so the use of sound professional judgment is critical.
  • Staff should use only district issued computers while on the job. Should a complaint arise and an investigation be initiated, the staff member’s school computer should immediately be secured. If personal computers are used at school this may create a legal issue for the investigator.  

While dialogue between principal and staff on this subject may be difficult to initiate, it is a conversation that must occur. Unfortunately, these types of situations happen in our profession and occasionally principals find themselves involved in a personnel investigation related to sexual misconduct. Being proactive and honest with staff regarding expectations, policies and procedures on this topic is a must in the 21st Century.

Off to a Safe Start

Dennis Lewis
Date of Post
Sep 27, 2009

Start Your School Safety Planning Now  

While pre-service teachers receive instruction associated with classroom management, most will receive limited, if any, information related to issues of school violence. Unfortunately, many experienced teachers also lack knowledge and training on this important topic. Though most schools are secure and orderly, even the best of educational environments may experience events that turn violent; it is then that staff will be expected to respond in a reasonable, professional and prudent manner. 

The training received by teachers on school safety usually occurs just before the beginning of the school year and may be limited to a few minutes out of a lengthy faculty meeting agenda. When it comes right down to it, what other topic is of greater importance for a school that student and staff safety? 

Who, What, and When

Who should be trained? 

  • All staff should be trained in how to appropriately respond during a school emergency situation, but the training of teachers is of critical importance. These individuals work most closely with students on a daily basis and are in a unique position to observe sudden changes in student behaviors, as well as the types of triggering events that can escalate into something more dangerous.

What should the training include? 

  • All staff should be thoroughly familiar with the school’s Emergency Response Plan. It should make little difference that some teachers and staff do not have pre-designated assignments or responsibilities during an emergency event because under adverse conditions tasks are often assigned by who is available or in close proximity. To facilitate the familiarity with a school’s plan, all staff should have a copy of the document and sufficient time should be allocated to discuss it.
  • The training should include how to operate basic equipment such as fire extinguishers, intercom systems and phones. Fire extinguishers are easy to use when one has been shown the operational procedures. All staff should know the location of the nearest fire extinguisher to their classrooms, as well as how to use the equipment.
  • Phones and intercoms are common items within a classroom, but different types of systems require different procedures and those new to the building may not know how to dial an outside line or how to call the office during an emergency event. This type of information should be included within the teacher handbook, as well as reviewed prior to the beginning of school.
  • Tabletop exercises are an excellent way for teachers and administrators to "test" their plans. When facilitated correctly, these exercises take approximately 20 minutes to complete and provide a wealth of good problem solving information for the staff, as well as important feedback for the administrative team.
  • Teachers should be shown how to assess their classroom for safety purposes. The review should include verification that designated safety supplies and aids are readily accessible.
  • Faculty should be given directions related to training students on safety issues. Students should be taught how to evacuate the building, shelter during inclement weather, as well as how to respond should an intruder be present on the school campus.
  • Faculty should review the student code of conduct. If students are going to be taught to use this important document, teachers must first understand how to use it for its intended purpose. The disciplinary definitions, as well as the scope and sequence of consequences, should be familiar to all teachers and reviewed with students.

When is training most critical?

  • Prior to the opening of school is the perfect time for this information to be discussed; however, the beginning of the second semester is another appropriate time for administrators and teachers to review safety related issues.
  • After any critical incident, it is important to debrief with staff and make note of any areas where the school’s response was limited or deficient, as well as where the response was correct. In the aftermath of an emergency situation a "teachable moment" is possible for all staff. Administrators should set aside their egos and opening and honestly discuss what went well and how things could have been done in a more prudent manner.
  • "Items of School Safety" should be a standard item on monthly faculty agendas. Staff should be asked if there are noteworthy safety concerns that should be discussed with the group. There will probably be some months when nothing is noted, but staff should still be encouraged to contribute their thoughts.

School Bus Safety

Dennis Lewis
Date of Post
Sep 27, 2009

Safety On the Bus - Everyone's Responsibility

The basis for any successful student management program on district provided transportation should begin with the premise that the school bus is merely an extension of the classroom. Of all the responsibilities under the daily "umbrella" of school administrators, providing transportation for students to and from school, as well as to extracurricular activities, can be frustrating when students or parents fail to recognize that riding the bus is a privilege rather than a "right".

Dedicated and often under appreciated bus drivers are expected to focus 100% of their attention on safely delivering students to their destinations, and we ask this while only providing a large mirror to assist them in terms of supervising students and maintaining order. It’s a formidable expectation, but fortunately for everyone drivers continue to do their jobs well and accidents rarely occur.

What Can Principals Do to Help?

We  suggest that many of the strategies used within the classroom should also be utilized on the school bus. Implementing the following suggestions should help make the entire school day safer - including the ride on the bus.

Communication - There should be a recurring dialogue between bus drivers and certificated personnel. If a problem is evident during the school day between two or more students, staff should check to see if the students ride the same school bus. If so, the driver should be notified and suggestions for the ride home should be made. Perhaps the students need to have different assigned seats. Perhaps one should sit up front with the driver, with the other riding in the back of the bus. Either way, the most important thing is for the communication between driver and staff to occur. And drivers should be reminded that in order for this to be most effective, communication should work both ways.

Staff Development - Teaching staff is usually provided periodic staff development on managing aggressive and/or violent behavior, and bus drivers should receive the same. In fact, when practical, it is a good idea to train both groups together so managing behavior in the classroom and on the bus becomes a collaborative effort, since each affects and benefits the other. Support staff is part of the educational team and should be treated accordingly. – There should be a recurring dialogue between bus drivers and certificated personnel. If a problem is evident during the school day between two or more students, staff should check to see if the students ride the same school bus. If so, the driver should be notified and suggestions for the ride home should be made. Perhaps the students need to have different assigned seats. Perhaps one should sit up front with the driver and one in the back. Either way, the most important thing is for the communication between driver and staff to occur. And drivers should be reminded that in order for this to be most effective communication should work both ways. If the bus driver is aware of a problem on the morning ride to school, he should make contact with the administrator or counselor at the start of the school day.

Post Rules - Bus rules should be posted in the classroom as well as on the bus. Behavioral expectations for the classroom should be similar and students should understand this through posted visual cues. Additionally, bus rules should appear in the student handbook and include language making it applicable to both the school day and other times a student might be on district transportation such as field trips, extra-curricular activities or other events.

Assign Seating - Assigned seating should be implemented on the bus from the beginning of the school year. Since the bus driver may not initially be familiar with many of the students on the route, teachers and other school officials should be ready and willing to assist by providing drivers with helpful background information. Emphasize to parents and students that this is a safety initiative that is beneficial to all.

Use Character Education -  For most schools, character education programs and themes are a mainstay for shaping student behavior. School staff should work with district transportation officials to develop appropriate venues to continue these educational efforts on the bus. Creativity will be required since the "classroom" is a moving vehicle, but drivers and teachers can collaborate on promotions and themes that are appropriate for both.

Use Behavioral Contracts - - If students have had previous disciplinary problems while riding district transportation, the use of contracts or agreements may be beneficial. A conference should occur that includes the driver, an administrator, the student, and parent. All should understand the terms of the agreement, and both student and parent should be required to sign as a condition of continued district provided transportation.

Remove students - - While administrators sometimes hesitate to inconvenience parents, it is critically important for students to understand administrative expectations, as well as the consequences for inappropriate behavior.

Students understand the "real rules" on the bus are the ones that get enforced. Teach the guidelines to staff, students and parents and maintain high expectations. Using administrative authority when necessary can appropriately support bus drivers in their duties and responsibilities, as well as provide for a safer environment for all.

School Safety Homework

Dennis Lewis
Date of Post
Sep 27, 2009

School Safety Homework - Make Sure You Make the Grade

Everyone in the school business has homework and school principals are no exception; however, some of us are not getting our homework done in a timely manner. And for school administrators who procrastinate and fail to complete all assignments, it may result in more than just a "bad grade". 

A study by the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Arkansas Children’s Hospital Research Institute indicates that many schools are unprepared related to disasters, particularly those that would affect large numbers of students and community members. This study surveyed 3,670 school superintendents throughout the United States and found the following: 

  • More than half of the districts do not use any type of student identification badge system.
  • Half of the districts do not utilize a staff identification system.
  • 30% of the superintendents have never conducted an emergency drill.
  • Few districts have written protocols for dealing with children with special needs during a disaster situation.

It would be a rare school that does not have a crisis plan that covers a myriad of crisis circumstances; but it appears some districts are still "behind the curve" when it comes to preparing for a disaster event that involves more than just the immediate student and staff population.

We suspect the primary reason schools have not adequately planned is a lack of knowledge related to steps in the process. As any student knows, the hardest part of completing one’s homework is mustering the willpower to get started. So we would suggest using the following guidelines to school principals and superintendents.

  • Begin by reviewing all existing crisis planning documents to verify where the plan may be lacking. While the plan probably provides for sheltering in place students for a relatively short amount of time, consider what you would need to do to shelter a larger community such as area residents.
  • Speak with local emergency management providers and familiarize yourself with the county or municipal plans. These disaster coordinators have the resources and training that can help to bridge the gap between your school and greater community plan. Be sure to ask about a pandemic event and seek their advice related to planning, provisions, and preparedness.
  • Update school floor plans after renovations and ensure that these plans are provided to law enforcement and community agencies. Additionally, invite law enforcement into the school to walk the building and become familiar with the "lay of the land". Provide law enforcement with digital pictures of the school so that a virtual tour is possible during an emergency situation.
  • Use tabletop exercises to test the plan. While full crisis preparedness drills are helpful, they are often time consuming and impractical. Tabletop exercises can provide much of the same type of feedback without all the disruption.
  • Be sure to include support staff in the planning and training. Bus drivers, secretaries, food service, and custodial personnel would be an integral part in an emergency response and their advance preparation is critical.
  • Ensure crisis plans are updated related to students or staff with special physical, educational, or medical needs. This may include individuals in wheelchairs, those with fragile medical conditions, hearing impaired, visually impaired, etc. When finalizing these arrangements be sure to include parents, the school nurse, classroom teachers, and administrators.
  • Make certain parents are informed related to relocation sites and student check out procedures. In addition, make sure student and staff emergency contact information is current and accessible off campus. Because families may change cell phone providers, employment, or personal residence during the school year, it is advisable to update the information in the fall, as well as confirming that the information is still accurate at the beginning of the second semester.
  • If your district does not currently require student or staff identification badges, we would recommend exploring the possibility. Even in relatively small communities transporting individuals to medical facilities could be more expeditious if picture identification of victims was readily available.

As you read through any of our articles on school safety you should always ask, "Will this play in Peoria?" In other words, are the suggestions practical for your particular school and community? While not all may seem to resonate immediately, it is a safe bet that some of the suggestions should be explored and are worthy of your follow-through. 

Plan ahead, be prepared, do your homework, and be ready for school. It is always better to be safe than sorry.

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