Understandably, student and school safety is a top priority for school leaders as they seek to ensure reassuring learning environments.

5 critical ingredients in a school safety plan

Understandably, student and school safety is a top priority for school leaders as they seek to ensure reassuring learning environments

Key points:

Teacher training programs often introduce aspiring educators to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, an eight-decade-old principle that reminds teachers that learning is significantly more difficult when other needs are not accounted for.

Physiological needs such as air, water, and food are most important; however, safety, including personal security, follows closely as a foundational requirement. After years of devastating and heart-breaking incidents of school violence, school safety sentiment has plummeted.

According to Gallup’s most recent research, 44 percent of parents with K-12 students fear for their child’s safety while they are at school. The survey found that 20 percent of parents say their children “expressed worry about feeling unsafe when they return to school,” an eight-point increase in just three years.

A separate survey found that 26 percent of teachers are “afraid for their physical safety” while at school and report “dread” when the new school year starts in August.

There are many reasons for this.

First, school shootings have increased in frequency and scope. As the halfway point approaches, there have already been 69 shootings this school year, up from 18 in all of 2008.

Meanwhile, the mental health state among students is plummeting, adding to the pressures that school leaders and staff are tasked to respond to and support. In 2023, one-fifth of students reported mental health concerns, including anxiety, depression, and behavior disorders, while only half of schools say they can “effectively provide mental health services to all students in need.”

On the other side of the mental health epidemic, across society at large, research published by Statista Research Department states that “in 72 cases out of a total of 148 reported mass shootings in the United States since 1982, the shooter(s) displayed prior signs of mental health problems.” School leaders in today’s world have to navigate the difficult role of supporting students’ many increased needs, as well as operating as a publicly accessible building and facility that is vulnerable to the ever-present risks across America’s cities and communities.

Understandably, school (and student) safety is a top priority for school leaders who understand that their top and most important priority is to return students safely to their families.

In response, districts nationwide are investing in human and technological resources to improve security for students, teachers, and parents.

This is necessary to counter an ever-changing and increasingly prominent threat landscape where weapons enter schools and compromise the safety of learning spaces. Many still don’t feel prepared. Even as they increase security in their buildings, just 24 percent of schools say they are prepared for active shooters.

Crisis planning and preparation can change this dynamic, creating a security blueprint for safe schools. Here are five critical ingredients of a school crisis plan that can help minimize threats and promote a safe school environment for everyone.

1. Understand potential threats relative to your school’s environment and readiness.

School safety starts with understanding the potential threats relative to your school’s environment and the readiness of all within it.

Conduct an assessment of risks pertinent to the school’s geographic location, physical layout, and available resources. Understanding and evaluating the building’s physical footprint is central to these efforts.

The number and nature of access points to the building must be carefully evaluated to ensure they do not become vulnerabilities. Similarly, the internal layout of the school should be scrutinized to determine how students and staff can be safeguarded most effectively during a crisis.

At the same time, take time to determine your staff and students’ readiness to respond to emergencies.

These in-house stakeholders can be tremendous defensive assets, but only if they know how to effectively respond to a crisis situation.

2. Conduct tabletop exercises of real-life scenarios.

Tabletop exercises, where participants gather to walk through various emergency scenarios in a structured manner, allow staff and responders to practice their roles and responsibilities in a simulated crisis, such as an active shooter situation, without the stress of an actual event.

Understanding that it’s impossible to completely eliminate all threats, the focus of these exercises is on risk minimization, providing the school community with the knowledge to act effectively during a crisis.

By involving teachers, students, parents, and the local community, these drills foster a culture of preparedness through repetition, helping ensure that students and personnel can quickly respond to a real-life crisis.

3. Invest in preventative resources.

Schools are strategically increasing their investment in preventative resources, allocating more than $3 billion to security projects, a number expected to grow by 8 percent in the year ahead.

In many cases, schools are hardening their perimeter defenses, installing fences, access control systems, classroom locks and weapons screening.

According to The New York Times, “about two-thirds of public schools in the United States now control access to school grounds — not just the building — during the school day, up from about half in the 2017-2018 school year.”

This is the right place to start, but it’s not the only way to make schools safer.

As part of their school crisis planning, leaders should allocate resources to preventative resources, including training, personnel, and technology, from access points to within the building.

Additionally, schools need to have more funding made available to them in order to invest in the mental health resources that schools know they need and want to provide but are limited by strained budgets. However, such resources are well worth the investment – from social workers and community support services, which support student development – all of which collectively lower the risk of violence, and elevates academic achievement.

4. Define threat detection protocols and proper communication practices based on threat levels.

Crisis communication is critical to ensuring optimal outcomes when the unthinkable happens. However, school personnel have a lot on their plates, and threat detection protocols and communication practices often get pushed aside as other priorities take precedent.

That’s why it’s crucial to establish clear school crisis communication practices tailored to each threat level.

For instance, in the event of a lockdown due to a violent incident, it is essential to know precisely whom to contact.

A designated school crisis communication point person should be in place, equipped to provide honest, timely updates to maintain transparency and control. This proactive approach ensures that parents and stakeholders are not blindsided by emergencies, fostering trust through preparedness. Schools and institutions often neglect this aspect, preferring to avoid the notion of a crisis, but the reality demands thorough planning and open communication channels.

Beyond internal coordination, it is important to have a dedicated individual or team—ideally full-time—entrusted with the oversight of these protocols. Their role is to orchestrate the various moving parts, ensuring the safety of everyone within the district or organization.

To bolster these efforts, consult external resources to identify and implement the latest best practices.

5. Document actions for continued improvement.

School safety is a moving target, and best practices are continually evolving. Schools must remain nimble, documenting their actions, evaluating their practices, and updating their response protocols accordingly.

This proactive approach involves meticulous documentation of safety measures, thorough evaluation of existing protocols, and consistent updates to ensure that response procedures reflect the latest insights and technologies. By doing so, schools can maintain a dynamic stance that is capable of addressing any threat or incident with the utmost efficiency and effectiveness. The goal is to create an environment where learning can thrive, unhampered by concerns for physical safety.

Act now to keep our kids safe

We all want our children to be safe. School safety is a shared responsibility that extends beyond the school grounds. It is a commitment that must be championed by the entire community, including parents, educators, students, and local stakeholders alike.

To ensure the well-being of our children, we must advocate for robust school crisis planning, adequate resources, new technologies, and continual reassessment of safety protocols in our schools.

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