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Safety Still Key Issue in New School Year

New technology and new thinking about how to plan and how to work with students after an event.

As the school year begins, the traditional conversations will take place about summer activities and plans for the year. However, unfortunately, school safety will also still be on everyone’s mind as they think about the tragedies of this last school year.

There are both new ideas and new technology available to keep schools safe, but in the end, experts say, it is often most important for educators to have a plan to help prevent such incidents and practice those procedures so that everyone individually knows how to respond.

Beyond that, for schools where a crisis occurs – or at any school after an much-publicized event – the recovery process is key.

The newest technology is probably the facial recognition software released by RealNetworks that was made available to schools for free in early July.

“School safety has become one of the top national issues in the United States in 2018,” says Rob Glaser, chairman and CEO of RealNetworks, the developer of the product. “We are proud to give our technology solution to every elementary, middle, and high school in America and Canada. We hope this will help make schools safer.”

The equipment has been piloted in Wyoming, where the state’s chief information officer reported that the SAFT application “provides the opportunity to utilize existing camera systems to intelligently scale and achieve an accurate understanding of who's entering a school campus."

To improve security, other school systems are beefing up entry systems, making certain there is only one entrance for visitors and establishing ways visitors can be allowed entry by buzzer then screened in the office.

But George Roberts, a community superintendent in Baltimore schools who went through his own violent incident when he was a principal at Perry Hall, MD, High School, says preparation is the key – a plan and practice. A student was shot by a classmate and a staff member was nearly wounded at his school about six years ago, and Roberts has spoken and written on the topic of school safety since.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to be prepared,” he says. “It is very important to have comprehensive plans, study it and practice it. Then it becomes instinctual.”

Nearly all schools have a plan in place, but in many cases they should be updated and revised – and practiced. Education Week recently reported that only one in five resource officers believe their school is prepared to handle an active shooter, for instance.

Roberts says he believes schools need four plans for emergencies: one for a regular evacuation like the traditional fire drill, one for moving students further away from building or to an alternative location, an “alert” status to keep students from leaving the school and a lockdown with doors and windows closed and covered. Each staff member should understand clearly their role in each of these scenarios.

He says often school plans are not comprehensive enough – or they are too detailed and confusing to the staff.

Experts say the plans should be well-publicized so that the staff, students, parents and community (including the local media) know them. And they should be practiced often – and each staff member should be given time to practice their own classroom procedures (including with students) and ask questions about concerns in their particular room or generally for the school. Officials should be sure to know that part-time staff or frequent visitors are familiar with the procedures. (A specialist, for instance, who is in the school often meeting with students will almost always have some in their care when they visit.)

At Payson, UT, High School, principal Jeff Simon, who has written about school safety, says schools often have the best intentions and write good plans and practice them, but as the school year goes on they don’t update them, practice them repeatedly or educate new staff members.

He now has the office in his school collect emergency notebooks at the end of the year and then over the summer updates them and changes staff names where necessary and adjusts procedures. He returns them to teachers and goes over them carefully during pre-service days. His school carefully reviews different scenarios and reviews the calendar to establish dates for practices throughout the year, and makes sure everyone is familiar with it.

His administrators also take a class in crisis preparation from the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s Emergency Management Institute.

 “To be honest, we always have to look at new ways to keep it fresh,” he says. “We have to look to improve our practice each year. This is too important."

The National Association of Secondary School Principals and the National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) have developed a a “Framework for Safe and Successful Schools” and NASP offers a lot of resources and useful information on school shootings, including tips for administrators and physical and psychological safety standards it says are needed.

Here are key elements of a plan:


  • Secure access points to school grounds and school buildings
  • Appropriate check-in/out procedures for visitors
  • Proper lighting and adult supervision in lobbies, hallways, parking lots, and other open spaces
  • Environmental design that creates natural barriers to playgrounds and other open spaces
  • In some communities, the use of school resource officers


  • Trusting relationships among staff and students
  • Access to comprehensive school mental and behavioral health services and school-employed mental health professionals 
  • A positive school climate 
  • Positive discipline practices 

Mechanisms for students and staff to report concerning behaviors or threats combined with an evidence-based protocol for responding.

Another key step in the process is handling the aftermath, when an incident occurs, whether the students in a school have been involved or if they have just heard about a highly publicized incident:

The National Education Association has a number of resources on its web site about school safety and how to handle the aftermath, including a School Crisis Guide and these other resources to help students after an event:

National Child Traumatic Stress Network NCTSN has several pdfs and other resources for helping parents and children deal with catastrophic mass violence events, including parent tips for helping school-age children after disasters, which lists children’s reactions with examples of how parents should respond and what they should say.

Talking to Children About Tragedies and Other News Events  The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) encourages parents, teachers, child care providers, and others who work closely with children to filter information about the crisis and present it in a way that their child can accommodate, adjust to, and cope with.

How to Help Kids Feel Safe After Tragedy It's normal for both adults and kids to feel anxious after such a publicly devastating event, but there are things you can do to minimize the stress and maintain a sense of normalcy.

Incidents of Mass Violence Learn about who is most at risk for emotional distress from incidents of mass violence and where to find disaster-related resources. 

Written by Jim Paterson, Education World Contributing Writer

Jim has been a newspaper and magazine editor and an award-winning writer for The Washington Post, USA Today Weekend, the Christian Science Monitor, Parents magazine, and a number of national and regional publications. During a break from writing he worked as a school counselor for seven years and quickly became head of a counseling department and Counselor of the Year in Montgomery County, MD