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School Safety Expands Its Boundaries | #schoolsaftey

Illustration by Julia Yellow

As students continue to reel from the pandemic, districts are expanding their definitions of what school safety should cover. Security goes beyond metal detectors and cameras. Training no longer begins and ends with active shooter drills.

Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky schools utilize a web of proactive and reactive programs to protect and nurture students, drawing guidance and funding from state and local resources to fulfill their individual safety plans.

In Ohio, the Ohio School Safety Center orchestrates and oversees awarding of designated safety funds. Founded in 2019 by Governor Mike DeWine, it launched with a $105 million budget as part of Ohio’s K–12 School Safety Program. House Bill 45 channeled an additional $112 million to fund physical security updates in 945 schools earlier this year. Several regional school districts, including Cincinnati Public Schools, Lakota, Madeira, and St. Ursula received grants from these funds.

While funding is a key aspect of the Center’s services, it also offers staff and teacher training, an emergency tip line, suicide prevention resources, and even connections to therapy dog centers. Perhaps most importantly, the Center takes an active role in standardizing school safety training, planning, and testing. “The Ohio School Safety Center has introduced a common set of expectations and language across the state. All districts are working toward the same goals, so creating a common set of expectations and language has been helpful as we collectively look to make improvements,” says Dave Bergan, assistant superintendent for Madeira City Schools.

“The Ohio School Safety Center has been a good resource to provide continuity and best practices for schools in regards to safety,” Robb Vogelmann, interim superintendent for Lakota Local Schools confirms. “They have provided guidance on the development of the Emergency Operations Plans and provided resources for schools to use and incorporate into their own individual safety programs. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for safety, and our philosophy is to incorporate different levels and layers to address the various possible threats.”

As helpful as those funds will be, the Ohio School Safety Center is a relatively new agency with room to grow. There are also gaps between its goals and the tools it provides school districts to achieve them. For example, although Cincinnati Public Schools received funding from Ohio’s K–12 School Safety Grant Program in 2022 and 2023 to improve its physical security systems and programs, there remain holes in the parent program’s approach.

“On an annual basis, both state and federal safety regulations are updated as well as recommended best practices for schools,” says Iranetta Wright, Cincinnati Public Schools superintendent. “CPS would like to see greater support in terms of annual training programs from the Ohio School Safety Center that could be hosted and delivered by its own staff—a train-the-trainer model. Additionally, HB 123 is a state mandate and required compliance for all school districts. It is currently unfunded at the state level, and consideration for funding school districts to meet HB 123 would be beneficial for successful compliance.”

While the Center is designed to primarily support public schools, all K–12 schools in the state fall under its purview, and not all have the resources needed to meet the Center’s recommendations.

“Non-public schools, like St. Ursula, need school resource officers,” Dr. Mari Thomas, St. Ursula Academy principal says. “It would be so beneficial if the Ohio School Safety Center could come up with a plan to better staff schools with SROs or retired police officers. These resources are sorely missing, or simply outside of a small school’s budget.”

Across the river, Northern Kentucky schools rely on their own state-level organization. Kentucky’s General Assembly created the Kentucky Center for School Safety with House Bill 330 in 1998. The Kentucky Center handles school safety training and compliance, disseminates the latest safety studies and data, and provides resources for staff, students, teachers, and the community. The collaborative organization uses research-based approaches to emergency management for both proactive and reactive measures while maintaining an open line of communication with all of Kentucky’s public schools.

“We regularly consult with the Kentucky Center for School Safety,” says Matthew Turner, superintendent of Boone County Schools.

While the Kentucky Center excels in direct contact with school faculty and staff, again, there remain gaps in communication and execution, particularly in regard to finances.

Photo Courtesy Boone County School District

The Kentucky School Safety and Resiliency Act, or Senate Bill 1 (2019), created a standardized set of security essentials for schools, including physical security measures, personnel, and training. House Bill 352 allocated $18.2 million of the 2020 budget to help cover the costs of changes made to secure and control access to school buildings. However, this may not be enough funding for every school to abide by every statute and suggestion in Senate Bill 1, not to mention local or regional safety regulations.

Brian Robinson, Ft. Thomas Independent Schools superintendent, explains, “It’s important, if we have expectations for every district, that we find ways to fully fund measures [the legislature] may recommend for schools to implement. There’s a difference between recommendations and requirements. They need to come with funding as well.”

Kentucky’s superintendents aren’t the only ones with suggestions. The Kentucky Education Commissioner formed a special advisory council of students from across the state, with at least two representatives from each district along with at least one representative each from the Kentucky School for the Blind and the Kentucky School for the Deaf. The council meets with members of the Kentucky Department of Education regularly to discuss how state-level decisions affect learners and provide feedback for lawmakers, their districts, and the community.

The Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council released a report in January concerning school safety with a series of recommendations for schools to implement before, during, and after an incident. The council’s three key preventative tips highlighted the need for student awareness of and trust in the S.T.O.P. (Safety Tipline, Online Prevention) tipline, better intervention rates in bullying cases and mental health emergencies, and support of gun legislation that would help keep guns off school grounds.

The council found the three most important tools in the case of an incident were conducting up-to-date active shooter drills; improving first responder training (including school staff and teachers); and a clear notification system to alert students, teachers, staff, and families in case of an emergency.

Post-incident, the advisory council recommended schools prepare to offer mental health services to secondary victims, hold town hall meetings to address ongoing concerns, and finally conduct physical repairs to the school building and grounds.

Students from both Boone County and Ft. Thomas school districts joined the council. Robinson, Ft. Thomas’s superintendent, already meets with a district-level student advisory council and holds his students’ insight in high regard.

“They know best,” Robinson says. “Our students are very aware of what works in schools. They’re also very honest. They’ll tell you when they are engaged in the classroom environment and when they feel safe at school. They’ll tell you when there are attempts at safety that make them feel uncomfortable as well, so it’s a delicate balance. Our students tell us when they’re concerned and when we’ve gone too far.”

The Ft. Thomas school district already has a number of the Commissioner’s Student Advisory Council’s recommendations in place, including Kentucky’s S.T.O.P. tipline, monitored by Homeland Security; staff and teacher training beyond drills; and in-classroom emergency supplies.

“Looking back as an educator within the classroom, we practiced our drills,” says Jamee Flaherty, Ft. Thomas’s assistant superintendent for student services. “We considered responding to fires, responding to earthquakes, responding to active shooters. That’s something of the past. We’re more aggressive with our approach to make sure that our faculty and staff have been trained. Not only are we trained for active shooters, but also with tourniquet care. Each of our classrooms has a tourniquet kit, and that’s something I would not have expected 10 to 15 years ago.”

Most importantly, the district strives to provide students with a connection to caring adults they can trust.

“When you look at most of the school safety research, it would indicate that the number one preventative measure for student safety is [to ensure students] can report to an adult any time they feel there’s a concern,” Robinson insists. “We work really hard to make sure our students feel valued, that our students feel listened to, that they feel heard, and they feel safe to confide in our adults if there’s any kind of concern that they face. We have to ensure that they feel safe and that they are safe.”

The students of Ft. Thomas are not the only ones encouraged to speak up for safety. In Ohio, many of the latest and most important elements in schools’ safety plans emphasize the power of student views and voices.

“Gun violence and mental illness are of top concern to our students,” Thomas, the St. Ursula Academy principal, says. “Tragedies are present every day, and everywhere. Training our students to be situationally aware, along with providing them with access to our anonymous tip line [LiveSafe], Ohio’s 844-SaferOH [844-723-3764], and the national 988 suicide hotline is a start in helping students be prepared, and stay safe.”

According to a 2021 report from the CDC, student mental health is in sharp decline. Nearly a third of students experienced poor mental health, and roughly 42 percent had persistent feelings of hopelessness. One in five considered suicide and one in 10 attempted it.

The Ohio School Safety Center explicitly lists self-harm as a threat to school safety. Suicide appears on the Kentucky Center for School Safety’s list of school safety issues along with bullying, cyber-bullying, parental aggression, and connectivity between teachers and students. There’s a clear, growing awareness of the intrinsic link between mental well-being and not only success, but also security in school.

“School safety, both physical and psychological, continues to evolve every day as new behaviors and threats challenge existing plans,” CPS’s Wright says. “Mass shootings, physical assaults, use of weapons, evacuations, and threats of violence— both real and false— are daily concerns for every school and district leader across the country.”

For CPS, many of those changes come in the wake of Gabriel Taye’s death in 2017 and the settlement with his family in 2021. The 8-year-old died by suicide after aggressive bullying in school, and in addition to financial recompense to the family, the district agreed to an overhaul of its bullying prevention tools and procedures.

“The district prioritizes bullying prevention by establishing districtwide expectations and training for all staff,” Wright says. “Per the settlement, and certainly a positive result, the district implemented the Bully Notification Button, which appears on the left side of all district website pages, making it easier for students and family members to report potential instances of bullying.” Once a report is submitted, district staff review and independently investigate the claim, working with both the report and school leadership throughout the process. School leadership leads parent communication and handles any necessary disciplinary measures to not only resolve the incident but circumvent any ongoing or future bullying.

The notification button isn’t the district’s only reporting resource. Cincinnati Public Schools’s strategy begins with the staff. They’re trained to recognize bullying, and every member is required to report and respond to instances. The district encourages students and their families to communicate concerns and report problems to teachers, but the district also offers an anonymous line specifically to report bullying allegations or concerns: (513) 363-0551.

Cincinnati Public Schools bring anti-bullying tools directly into the classroom, equipping the students with the tools to manage emotion, improve social engagement, and develop a safer learning environment. Approaches include utilizing Social Emotional Learning (SEL) and Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) along with positive conflict resolution skills and restorative practices. School psychologists and school social workers connect students to mental health providers when appropriate, providing avenues to care beyond what the classroom can offer.

The good news is, the district’s multi-pronged approach seems to be working. “Currently, CPS is experiencing a 20 percent reduction of bully reports compared to last school year,” Wright reports.

The bad news is, the district still struggles with social and economic barriers that make the grueling labor of improving school safety even more difficult. “Creating equity and access to resources are challenges many urban districts face every day,” Wright says.

This is where school safety grows beyond school grounds. Cincinnati Public Schools and other districts in Greater Cincinnati partner with MindPeace, an organization that serves to bridge gaps between schools, mental health services, and families. While it’s not the only third-party mental health service involved in local schools (more on other resources on page 11), MindPeace showcases the unique range and opportunities third-party supports can offer students. MindPeace helps address many families’ struggles with access to mental health resources by linking them with professionals partnered with their specific school districts, addressing barriers to care. They also provide de-escalation rooms in many local schools where students can learn and practice self-regulation techniques, connect to suicide prevention and postvention support partners, and offer transitioning care for students moving into and out of high school. It isn’t a metal detector or tip line, but it closes vital holes in the school safety web.

“I think it’s really important to note that there’s not one key element that necessarily goes into every situation,” Robinson says. “While it might not seem like a school safety topic, I think making sure that we adequately fund schools, that we have highly qualified, caring adults in every single classroom, that we maintain class sizes, that we provide as many supports as we have [for] mental wellness, is actually the most important element.”

Ft. Thomas’s superintendent isn’t alone. A broader recognition of mental health as a critical element of school safety and the growing appreciation for preventative rather than purely reactive measures echoes through Greater Cincinnati’s school districts.

“Though it is still very important to do drills and practice responses to various threats, there have been more resources and focus on prevention,” Vogelmann says. Traditional security remains essential, and local schools list physical security needs ranging from bridges to updated communication tools to better lighting. These will only be fixed with additional funding. Better funding also opens the door for the most essential part of any preventative safety plan: quality teachers with the resources to do their jobs well.

“You can get cameras. You can have radios. You can have a whole variety of equipment, but what we know to be effective is having highly qualified, caring adults in every school, in every classroom so students have somewhere to go when they have needs,” Robinson says. “When you have that, you have the safest school possible.”

Thomas has a similar opinion. “Our country has a mental health crisis and a gun violence problem. Young people need resources to be whole. Schools need more staffing to bring this to life,” she says.

The lingering trauma of the pandemic seems to have created a timely window where adults and young people understand more of each other’s struggles. While the idea of mental health as a safety concern isn’t entirely new, schools have the opportunity to better integrate it as part of a wider effort to redefine the concept of a safe school. While our understanding of what it takes to create these safe spaces expands, it’s also important to know that these additional initiatives and state requirements can put a strain on already tight school budgets—and to know that this isn’t just an issue for the parents of current students.

“The importance of schools to every community can’t be overstated,” Robinson insists. “We have to invest in our kids. It is a community effort. It requires we all think about it, whether we have children in our schools, will have children in our schools, or our children have graduated long ago. Safety is an important element, and it’s a community effort, but it is a complex one that is tied to all the other elements within our schools as well.”

Who needs safe schools? The issue reaches beyond today’s classrooms. Students who see their value set in today’s budgets are tomorrow’s policy makers. Teachers spending their prime years learning to apply tourniquets are tomorrow’s elders, and one day the kids learning how to prevent violence will run our communities. Healthy, safe, strong schools are everyone’s concern.

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