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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.

Strategic Supervision

Dennis Lewis
Date of Post
Sep 27, 2009

Strategic Supervision

Have you ever wondered what effective student supervision and successful fishing have in common?  If your answer has anything to do with 'strategy', you are on the right track.

Ask any seasoned administrator, and he will tell you that for supervision to be effective, it must include administrative strategy.  As an experienced fisherman what determines where and how to fish, and his answer will also include some type of strategic decision making.  Time of day, weather conditions, geographical location, first hand experience and reports from others will be relevant to both.  Successful fishermen do not randomly fish, and successful principals do not randomly decide where and how to supervise a school building or event.

As with many tings in the school business, it is well advised to develop a written plan and to communicate expectations to those that must carry out the duties.

As you develop your plan for supervision, we suggest asking the following questions:

  1. Based upon knowledge of the school plant and past disciplinary situations, as well as staff and student input, where and at what times of day should supervisory personnel be placed at specific location?
    • We would suggest beginning with bus arrivals and departures, lunchroom, student commons areas and hallways during class change.
    • Additionally, a periodic review of discipline and accident reports can provide insight into the location of problem areas.  An analysis of this data is best completed by an internal safety committee made up of staff and faculty members.  When staff is involved in the review of data, they become more participatory in the process of school safety.
  2. Does my current supervisory plan include the following:
    • Beginning and ending times for supervision duties
    • Communication procedures between supervisors and administrative personnel, such as a requirement to carry a radio or cellular phone
    • Instructions for evacuations or in place sheltering and the expectations and duties for staff during times of supervision
    • Notations of special problems or areas requiring special attention
    • Monitoring hallways, exterior doors, restrooms, common areas, etc.
  3. How should principals remind staff about the value, responsibility, and accountability related to supervision?
    • In addition to giving staff a handbook that provides expectations for student supervision, periodic discussion of supervisory guidelines should be a part of faculty meetings throughout the school year.  Staff should be required to sign for receipt of the handbook indicating that it has been read, understood, and an opportunity given to ask questions.  Faculty agendas that provide documentation of items discussed should be retained.
  4. Have I trained all personnel in the dynamics of supervision?
    • In addition to training full time staff, provisions should be made to ensure that substitute teachers and staff hired after the beginning of the school year are provided with similar expectations for supervision.  Substitute teacher folders should include instructions indicating the same supervisory guidelines as the regular education teacher.
  5.  Do I always model the appropriate techniques for supervision?
    •  Administrators should properly model supervisory techniques by refraining from personal adult conversation while on supervisory duty.  When faculty see administrators that are not paying attention to students, the message is sent that this is an acceptable practice.

Remember, many aspects of school security and safety come with a price; however, strategic supervision is one of the most valuable, inexpensive and proven methods to ensure staff and student safety.  It will require a number of discussions and considerable planning, but it will be well worth the effort in establishing the optimum safe school environment.

Prepare to 'Weather' the Storm

Dennis Lewis
Date of Post
Sep 27, 2009

Preparing for Severe Weather

With the recent tragedy in Enterprise, Alabama in which a tornado struck the high school during the school day, it is prudent to once again reflect upon the strategies that should be part of a school’s emergency planning.

Practicing for Situations of Severe Weather

While certain parts of the country are more susceptible to severe storms and may warrant additional drills, a minimum of five should occur regardless of the location. From the first day of school until the last student leaves at the end of the school year, there is always the possibility for a weather related emergency; therefore, two drills should be held the first week of school with quarterly drills to follow.

The first severe weather drill should be completed as a "walk through" to orient new students and staff to the procedures involved; the second drill should be conducted to assess true readiness for such an event. With each exercise, staff should have the opportunity to debrief and discuss problems that arise.

School Maps and Evacuation Routes

All rooms within the school should contain evacuation and sheltering maps posted at approximately eye level and adjacent to the exit. Maps and written directions should be easily read with large fonts and color coded. Additionally, designated sheltering areas should be clearly marked as such. In the event patrons or visitors need to quickly seek shelter outside of the normal school day, they should be able to find the designated areas through directional signage posted in the hallways and throughout the building.

Weather Alert Radios

While some schools have agreements with local authorities that result in a notification of impending severe weather, using a weather alert radio provides a backup system. For others, a weather alert radio may be the primary source of weather information. Regardless, the weather alert radio should be placed in an area where there is constant adult presence.

Emergency Management Plans

Emergency management plans specific to severe weather should be reviewed by outside emergency response providers to help ensure all contingencies have been covered. Fire department or other qualified officials should review the identified sheltering locations in the school and "sign off" that the areas selected are appropriate.

Alternate provisions for notification should be made for areas of the school where staff and students may have difficulty hearing the internal alarm. These locations may include band, orchestra and music rooms, industrial technology, physical education, etc.

School Events off Campus

School and district staff accompanying students on trips away from the school should be well versed on actions to take if severe weather strikes. This includes not only when they are at their appointed destination, but in transit as well. One should not try to outrun or out maneuver a tornado. Seeking immediate shelter in the closest well constructed building or having students move to low areas such as a ditch or depression in the ground and assume a duck and cover profile is prudent, provided standing or rushing water is not a hazard.

Emergency Planning for Physically Disabled Students

For many schools the student population will contain both permanently physically disabled students, as well as those with a temporary handicapping condition due to accident or injury. For both groups, advance planning will need to occur. Evacuation and sheltering plans should be written for these students designating sufficient staff to help transport them to the sheltering or evacuation location. These plans should cover each class period, as well as lunch and other non-instructional times. Unless advised by parent or physician, the school should practice these evacuation and sheltering procedures with these students so all understand the expectations and steps in the process.

Planning for Parent Arrival and Student Dismissal

Since knowing exactly when and where a tornado will strike is not possible, dismissing students during a storm warning can put them in harm’s way and increase the risk that something tragic will happen. Procedures should be written to guide staff when parents arrive and ask for the release of students during a sheltering event. This information and the accompanying procedures, along with how the school generally handles a severe weather event, should be included in the student handbook, posted on the district or school’s website, and given to parents through other appropriate venues.

Regardless of how well school administrators plan for severe weather events, it is not possible to totally predict how and when nature’s fury will strike; however, thorough and collaborative planning can provide the best opportunity for safety when tornados or other severe weather interrupt the school year.

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