What Constitutes Comprehensive School Safety Policies, Programs, and Funding?

Posted by on August 15, 2010

The “bullying summit” held by the U.S. Department of Education this past week drew attention, praise, opposition, and spirited debate depending upon who you talked with about it.   

As legislators, bureaucrats, educators, media and others jump on the “bullying bandwagon,” what constitutes a more comprehensive and balanced school safety plan?

I revisited my July 9, 2009, Congressional testimony to a House joint subcommittee hearing on school safety.  In the spirit of not “reinventing the wheel,” I am posting below a portion of my testimony on the need for federal policy and funding based upon a comprehensive and balanced approach to school safety. 

Our federal leaders, in my opinion, would benefit from reading this and acting accordingly to avoid a skewed, imbalanced approach to federal school safety policy and funding.

Framing a Comprehensive Approach to School Safety
There is no single cause of school violence, nor is there any single solution. Too often, genuinely concerned individuals ranging from parents to legislators blame one particular factor for causing school violence (gangs, bullying, deficient home lives, etc.) and one particular solution (more metal detectors and security equipment, more anti-bullying programs, more prevention, etc.). High-profile incidents in the media often lead to “legislation by anecdote” and, corresponding policy and appropriation decisions of a single-issue and single-program focus.

Today’s school administrators must be prepared to deal with a broad continuum of school safety threats. These threats to safe schools include bullying, verbal and physical aggression, and fighting on one end of the continuum, to weather and natural disasters, non-student intruders on campus, irate parent violence, spillover of community-originating violence, to-and-from school attacks on students, gang violence, stabbing incidents, school shootings, and terrorist threats to schools on the other extreme. Just as these threats span a wide, broad continuum, so must the scope and depth of school safety prevention, intervention, security, and emergency preparedness strategies to prevent and manage these threats.

Federal school safety policy, programs, and funding, just like that at the state and local education level, must therefore be based upon an approach and framework which is comprehensive and balanced. Too often, school safety advocates call for “more prevention” OR “better security.” The real answer should be “more prevention” AND “better security.” Effective approaches to school safety include prevention, security, and preparedness measures, not a curriculum-only or security-only approach. An overemphasis and narrow focus on bullying or gangs alone is no more effective than an overemphasis on security equipment or more police in schools alone.

Approaches to school safety must also be comprehensive in looking at where threats to student and staff safety may arise. Crime and violence impact students and the entire school-community not only within the school campus boundaries, but also to-and-from school, on school buses, and at school-sponsored events. Too often we have seen education officials quick to point out which side of the school property line a student shooting occurred (across the street or a block away instead of inside the campus property line), yet shootings at the bus stop, incidents to-and-from school, athletic event violence, etc. has a profound disruptive impact on school operations due to student, parent, and staff anxiety and fear from the incident.

While our discussions herein focus on K-12 settings, we must also recognize that a growing number of pre-school, Head Start, and other early childhood programs face safety threats. Non-custodial parent issues, stranger danger, and other threats to our youngest of children warrant consideration in school safety prevention, security, and preparedness planning. Many early childhood programs operate within elementary and secondary school buildings where regular classes are occurring, in separate K-12 school district stand alone buildings, and in community-based sites such as former businesses and store-fronts with challenging physical facilities, poor physical security measures, and no emergency preparedness training or plans.

We cannot have rollercoaster school safety policy and funding at any level of government. Throwing money at school safety after a high-profile incident is no wiser than is cutting school safety funding when there is not a tragedy in the headlines. School safety policy, programming, and funding must be ongoing, sustained, and reasonably funded for the long haul.

Elements of a Comprehensive School Safety Program
Elements of a comprehensive and balanced school safety program include:
• School climate strategies stressing order and structure, respect, trust, diversity, school ownership, peaceful resolution of conflicts, and related characteristics
• Incident-based data collection and analysis of discipline, crime, and violence incidents, supplemented by student, staff, and school-community survey-based data
• Firm, fair, and consistent discipline
• Adult supervision, adult visibility, and positive adult relationships with students
• Effective prevention and intervention programs
• Mental and physical health support services
• Strong academic programs with diverse extracurricular activities
• Student-led school safety involvement and safety training
• Parental and community involvement and networking, and parent training
• Professional development training for teachers, administrators, and school support staff (secretaries, custodians, bus drivers, food service staff, security and police staff, etc.)
• Proactive security measures (physical security measures, security technology, security/ police staffing, crime prevention policies and procedures, awareness training, etc.)
• Emergency / crisis preparedness planning, exercising, and training
• Strong partnerships with police, fire, emergency medical services, emergency management agencies, mental health providers, public health agencies, local and regional public officials, and other key community-based organizations.

Security technology can be a helpful component of a comprehensive school safety program. However, any security equipment must be a supplement to, but not a substitute for, a more comprehensive school safety approach. The first and best line of defense in school safety will always be a well-trained, highly-alert staff and student body.

Federal school safety policies, programming, and funding must reflect a framework which is comprehensive and balanced. An overemphasis on any single approach will detract from productive, sustained, and meaningful long-term school safety policy.    

Ken Trump

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