From the moment they enter the world and we hold our children in our arms, we vow to protect them in every way possible. During those first few years, we let them explore the world, but not without a watchful eye — anticipating danger, big or small.
But as they get older and more independent, we send them off to school in the morning and the job of protecting our children from the dangers they can’t anticipate themselves expands to a village of people. We rely on school leaders and the systems they put in place to be the first line of defense if something should happen.
And when awful events at our schools occur — from a playground fight to news of a shooting on some remote campus — many parents give renewed focus to looking at the safety and security measures followed in their schools. They soon realize how daunting it is to consider every aspect: from prevention measures relating to mental health, to protocols around access to the school; and importantly, considering the law enforcement response and coordination of first responders.
Having spent years working in the security industry, with major entities such as the Department of Homeland Security, FEMA, local public safety agencies and first responders, and both public and charter schools across the nation — I have learned that every district has its own unique needs. However, there are a handful of things that are important to consider regardless of whether a school is large or small, urban or rural, or comprised of elementary, middle, or high school students.
So, here are some things parents should look for in a safe school:
Does the school have a working partnership with local emergency response and law enforcement agencies?
Did you know that almost every after-action report from a school shooting or public mass violence event cites a failure in communications as a contributing factor to loss of life? We know that saving time in response and incident resolution can ensure better outcomes for both victims and first responders.
And while anyone, anywhere, at any time can dial 9-1-1 and emergency personnel will deploy to their location, situational awareness, readiness, and proper coordination between school administrators, security personnel, and law enforcement agencies can save precious minutes during an emergency.
One of the best ways to ensure that first responders are in-the-know about your child’s school and can deploy a swift and targeted response to an emergency is to use software to bridge radio, cell phone, and video communications. Safety technology has come a long way from when we were students. Today, school personnel can hit a smartphone panic button that transmits real-time video from building surveillance cameras so that first responders know exactly what’s going on in the building. That same software can allow school leaders to quickly communicate with law enforcement via radio, phone, or text. Finally, it can give first responders access to the school’s public intercom system, as needed.
A school district that has installed this interoperability software in partnership with local law enforcement and emergency responders is ahead of the curve in terms of readiness.
Does the school supply life-saving drugs?
If you are a parent of a child with an allergy, you are likely prepared for a worst-case scenario — including sending your child to school with an EpiPen. But what if you aren’t aware of an allergy? According to the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology, food allergy symptoms “can appear at any age” and a child or adult can even suddenly develop an allergy to a food they have eaten time and time again.
It’s important to ask your child’s school if they have a fresh EpiPen or Benadryl available each school year, and what the protocol is for dispensing it. What are the signs a child needs an EpiPen administered vs Benadryl? What facility members are trained to administer the drug? How is emergency response notified? What hospital will the child be sent to after EMS arrives?
And allergies aren’t the only thing to be concerned about. Sadly, today’s opioid epidemic is creeping into our high schools. A 2012 study by National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse found that about 17 percent of American high school students are drinking, smoking, or using drugs during the school day. It’s hard to think of our own children falling into this statistic, but if a teenager is exposed to a drug at school — it’s important to know if Narcan is available, or what the school’s protocol is if they expect a child is under the influence.
Being informed and involved is an important role for all parents, and districts that are ready for medical emergencies have a good understanding of how to care for their students.
Does the school provide a security briefing?
Many school districts organize a security briefing at the beginning of the school year to let parents know protocols and updates to facilities. This is a great opportunity to see what systems are in place for everyday security and worst-case scenarios. Attend and ask questions, specifically about the campus your child attends. It’s not only important that you know the details about school security measures, but in asking questions — you help administrators know that your child’s safety is a priority that needs to be addressed.
Something also to consider in these annual briefings is that Texas state laws, funding pertaining to our schools, and grant opportunities change frequently. For example — starting in 2019, more than $200 million dollars is available to Texas school districts for use improving mental health services and school safety improvements. Find out how your district is allocating this funding, and if they intend to take advantage of additional state and federal funding by applying to grants.
Proactive districts that keep parents informed often have a good handle on safety protocols and are open to evolving with the needs of their student and faculty populations.
Is the school both supportive and proactive on mental health services and the training of staff on mental health first aid?
In today’s world, it is vital that school districts are taking an active role in providing mental health and guidance services, offering support and resources to parents and guardians, involving health professionals; and in alarming cases, reporting issues to the authorities.
Texas is being proactive on this issue. In 2019 alone, over 10,000 school personnel in Texas were trained in Mental Health First Aid. Since August 2018, the Texas State School Safety Center has held seven threat assessment workshops with over 425 participants. Find out if personnel from your child’s school have attended any of these, or similar, training seminars.
Furthermore, Senate Bill 11 — signed into law in the summer of 2019 — provides districts with $100 million in funding for school-based mental health centers, the hiring of counselors, and other mental health needs, and provides $99 million in funding for the Texas Mental Health Care Consortium. Funding is available to every public school district and qualifying charter school in the state.
As a parent, it is also valuable to know what your school’s protocols are for reporting violent thoughts to trained health professionals, serious threats to the authorities, suspension, expulsion, and then future access to campus.
Districts that are both supportive and proactive on mental health issues help mitigate safety issues before they come to fruition.