Observations: School Safety

In the wake of yet another school shooting today in Ohio…

School safety is a difficult subject.

ComplicatingOstrich things are that many educators, especially administrators, haven’t been trained and are relying on instinct.

Then, there is the stack of mandates. I’ve had more superintendents than I can count tell me they could work 24/7 on the federal and state mandates and not get through all of them.

Safety often gets put to the side, especially as most administrators were never exposed to the necessary training during their credentialing process.

They don’t know what they don’t know and don’t know where to get help.

Many administrators are also afraid of what the parents will say so (why are you doing this drill?  Is our school that unsafe?).  They implement what I call the Ostrich Approach and rely on public safety.

There are two fallacies in the assumption that public safety knows what to do:  First, teachers and administrators are the first responders in a school incident; they need training.  Second, law enforcement knows how to deal with the bad guys. That’s their job. They’re not focused on handling hundreds or thousands of students during an incident. That’s the school’s job.

Add to this, the administrator and teacher changes; people retire, move on to other districts so unless the drills and procedures are institutionalized, the knowledge quickly disappears and is forgotten.

In working with law enforcement, I’ve learned a tremendous amount. Their training is in a “high anxiety, fear-based” mode, primarily because that’s usually the scenario when they arrive at an incident. Even that training, at least in California, is changing with the awareness that a de-escalating, calm approach, especially when dealing with people with mental illness, can get far better results.

Teachers, on the other hand, use a “scaffolding” mode — that is, start with the basics and grow the subject, making certain that students are supported so that everyone can succeed.

Law enforcement uses a “one size fits all” approach; teachers have 30 or more student variables, including students with autism, physical disabilities, processing challenges, etc. They need to know their options.

With law enforcement now conducting most of the lockdown trainings, I have concerns that the standard “run, hide, fight” approach, while certainly the correct response, has been better framed for adults in the business world than for one adult with 20 – 40 children.

My experience is that officers also need a bit of training in order to work effectively with school kids.  You can’t just bark orders. There are those officers who intuitively know; others who need, hmm, some scaffolding in a more appropriate approach.

Parents often worry about drills and the impact on youngsters, but it’s really no different than teaching children not to get in a car with a stranger, not to run out in the street, etc. It’s teaching (and drilling) students to evacuate in a fire, drop/cover/hold in an earthquake, for example, and run or barricade in a lockdown.

The fairly recent research out of Harvard shows that humans are hard-wired to freeze in an emergency UNLESS our brains have been re-wired through drills to react differently.  In 9/11, people froze and died; the exception was the Morgan Stanley office that had been repeatedly drilled under their Security Chief Rick Rescorla, retired US Army.  Rescorla died after returning to the towers to rescue others, but the 2,687 Morgan Stanley employees lived after immediately evacuating.

Fires used to kill hundreds of children in schools; not one child has died since school fire drills have been mandated and building codes updated.

Drills are critical.

Long time past, after the citywide lockdown training had been concluded and the drills were rolling out in over 300 schools, the mayor had a town hall meeting.  I was asked to be there, just in case there was a question regarding the drills.

One young mother stood up, nervous but forceful. She looked the mayor straight in the eye, took a deep breath and told her story.

My first grade daughter came home last month with a note that her school was having a Code Red drill the next day. It was too late to even call and complain. I was angry.  My daughter has been terrified since 9/11 and now, a drill?  I made arrangements to leave work early so I’d be home when my daughter arrived. I was so worried.

My daughter skipped into the house, excitedly announcing that it had been the best day ever in school. They had learned and practiced what to do if a bad man with a gun ever came into the school. They put tables against the door, built a fort, were very quiet and then the officer gave them each a sticker for walking out to the playground without talking after the drill.

Now, her daughter announced, I’m not afraid.  I know what to do.

The parent concluded, I just wanted to thank you.

The lesson, beyond the obvious, is that parents and parent groups are the ones that often make it both safe and essential for schools to train and drill for emergencies.




Buzzword Bingo

This past Monday morningBingo, an email from the American Association of University Women showed up in my inbox, inviting me to play State of the Union Bingo with the rest of the nation’s AAUW members.

The objective, other than to have some fun and possibly win a few prizes, was to see if Obama’s speech would help women and girls in the upcoming year.

I immediately flashed back to my years in teaching and so many staff meetings with no objective other than to cover items that could have been better communicated in a short memo.

There were those of us who carried in stacks of essays to correct during the mandatory Monday afternoon Staff Meetings — typically the English Department, but that did not help any of us stay awake during the terminally long meetings. It usually seemed that the presenters just wanted to take the longest amount of time to share the smallest amount of information.

Most of us concluded that many of the presenters just enjoyed hearing themselves speak.

Then, someone (ok, it was Sister Peggy) brought in a nifty little game for the faculty:  Buzzword Bingo.

The squares were filled with the latest buzzwords — a relatively easy task in education as the profession tends to thrive on Flavor-of-the-Day Buzzwords.  Cards were generated and printed and we quietly distributed the Buzzword Bingo handouts among our hundred or so colleagues.

We had great fun.  The game kept us all awake and at least looking like we were paying attention.  The best record ever was somewhat under four minutes and that was for covering an entire card.  I’m not sure that record actually counted because it was during a presentation by an administrator with a reputation for speaking solely in buzzwords without actually knowing what any of them meant.

The game became very popular and made Monday Staff Meetings almost tolerable. The administrators had no idea what we were doing, other than assuming that they were charming the faculty with their endless droning and that we were all dutifully taking notes.

Then, second semester arrived and with it, a new crop of young and enthusiastic student teachers. As required, they all trooped into their first Monday Staff Meeting. One sweet young teacher, having been handed a Buzzword Bingo card without any of the cautionary ground rules, started playing the game in earnest.

When she had covered the requisite squares, the young teacher jumped up out of her chair, waving the Buzzword Bingo card high in the air and shouting BINGO!! at the top of her lungs.

Alas, it happened smack in the middle of the principal’s presentation.

And with that, like so many other good ideas in education, Buzzword Bingo came to an abrupt and untimely demise.