When you think of schools in the welcoming town of Janesville, Wisconsin, your first thought may not be about school safety. But if you know Dr. Karen Schulte, the Superintendent of the School District of Janesville, you know school safety is one of her very first priorities.
Dr. Schulte, or “Karen” as many of us know her, was appointed superintendent in January of 2009. Prior to that time, she served as the district’s Director of Student Services for five and one-half years. In that capacity, a short list of her many duties included serving as the district’s Safety Officer, overseeing student services related to numerous prevention and intervention programs, and directing the district’s federal-funded Readiness and Emergency Management for Schools (REMS) grant.
I had the pleasure of working with Karen on school emergency preparedness assessment, training, tabletop, and related activities with the REMS grant. My colleagues and I came to quickly respect her sincerity, commitment, and genuine passion for school safety and emergency preparedness. Karen has the unique feature of being a “gentle giant” who is a great listener, genuine communicator, and consistent leader capable of moving projects and tasks forward while engaging the respect and participation of various players along the way without a lot of fanfare.
Karen completed her course work for a Ph.D. in Educational Administration from University of Wisconsin-Madison. It is not uncommon to encounter a superintendent with an advanced degree. It is not so common, however, to find a superintendent like Karen whose dissertation focused on school safety and student related issues.
Top School Safety Challenges
Karen identifies three top areas she has seen as most challenging in school safety:
- Threats by students to do harm to the school, staff and building. All such threats must be regard as serious. In these cases it can take a lot of time and investigative work to determine the potential and to react (and not over react) with the appropriate actions. This, of course, must be done while keeping in mind the confidentiality of the student and family, and the safety of the student making the threat.
- Death of students is a difficult process that is often played out in the media and the hallways of our schools. We had two of our students and their mother murdered, and three students who died car crash where fire consumed the bodies. These two incidents were in the media for months; the car crash until the bodies were officially identified and the murder trial which lasted for nearly two years. You need to respond to the immediate reaction from the staff and students, community and media. You must also prepare for the ongoing reactions as new information is released and the murder conviction is played out in the courts.
- Working with parents and the community to educate and help them understand the levels of lockdowns. Educating and getting them to understand that students are safe and will not be released until the incident has been resolved. We experienced a tornado warning at dismissal and a police stand-off. In both incidents we held students until we were certain our staff and students were safe. Though that was not the most favorable decision in the opinion of some of the parents, staff and media.
Proactive School Security and Emergency Preparedness
Karen points to three proactive efforts she and her district have taken to enhance school safety, security, and emergency/crisis preparedness:
- Installed an all doors locked – buzzer system policy. Cameras and buzzers have been installed on the main entrance of all school sites and the administrative building. Visitors must be buzzed in and sign in at the front area where they receive a badge. The hardest and still most challenging portion of this is during Summer School. We now are making security checks to be certain staff is abiding by this policy.
- Ongoing training at our Administrative Workshops. Having administrative staff work through crisis scenario as teams and discuss their action steps, explain their process has served as a great learning tool.
- Applying for the REMS grant and being awarded it, allowed us to evaluate, train and develop and take our crisis management and school safety to a level of excellence. We have been able to involve more community agencies, parents and partners in our process. This has proven to be a positive step in dealing with an incident.
I might add that Karen and her team were among the best I have seen nationwide in implementing their REMS grant!
School Safety Advice to Colleagues
What are Karen’s top pieces of advice for other superintendents and boards on school safety, security, and emergency planning?
- Be prepared! Review your process and plans on a regular basis.
- Training! Your staff needs to know how, and when to react. We cannot rely on a manual to guide us through a crisis. Some steps must be immediate and done without thought or checking to see if it is right.
- Train student and staff to report and question anything that does not seem right or information that they may have.
- Create relationships and MOUs with community agencies and neighboring districts. Meet with them on a regular basis and train with them when needed.
Dr. Karen Schulte not only talks the talk of school safety. She walks the walk. And for that reason I am proud to recognize her as a “School Safety Leader”!*
Visit School Security Blog at: http://www.schoolsecurityblog.com
*”School Safety Leaders” are individuals on the “front lines” of education who have demonstrated proactive leadership in addressing school safety, security, and/or crisis preparedness.
Additional Background on Dr. Karen Schulte: Dr. Schulte has over 25 years of experience in education. In addition to her positions as Superintendent, and prior to that Director of Student Services, for the School District of Janesville, Dr. Schulte was employed in the Beloit Turner School District as principal of Turner Middle School for five years. Prior to her Principalship she was Assistant Principal at Marshall Middle School in Janesville for two years. Her related work experience includes serving as a special education teacher, unit leader, and Dean of Students in Des Moines, Iowa.