Parents will forgive school officials if test scores go down. They are much less forgiving if something happens to their children that could have been prevented or better managed. Today, school safety is not only a "money" issue" but also a "leadership" issue. Administrators must prevent potential challenges to their safe school environments and their reputations, recognize safety gaps, plan and budget for security, and exercise caution in selecting consultants to strengthen their safety leadership.
Reputations Are at Stake
Progressive school leaders recognize that when a high-profile safety issue strikes their schools, their history of academic excellence becomes irrelevant for a point in time. Administrator and board credibility can be instantly at-risk. Parents and the media will seek out officials for "by name accountability" if they believe gaps in security and crisis responses existed.
Superintendents from several large districts have been in the headlines this school year due to high-profile incidents of violence. One veteran superintendent resigned from his 12-year post mid-year following questions after several violent incidents in his district. If students do not feel safe to learn and teachers do not feel safe to teach, the focus shifts from academics to discipline and personal safety. Safety, discipline and climate are also factors influencing dropouts.
Being proactive and communicative on school safety can help administrators improve safety, security and preparedness; reduce dropouts and improve attendance; maintain the focus on academic achievement; and increase parental confidence in school leaders. Increased parental confidence can transcend safety issues and lead to parental support of other school issues, such as funding requests.
Recognize Security Gaps
School safety assessments often find stark differences between, on the one hand, written policies and procedures, and on the other, actual day-to-day practices. Simple practices such as greeting strangers often do not occur. Frequently, emergency guidelines have questionable content, staff members have not been trained, and plans are not exercised in tabletop exercises with community partners.
Evaluate and test your own plans before they get tested by an actual emergency, a lawsuit, or by the media. Districts are increasingly working with local safety officials and hiring outside consultants to evaluate plans, train staff, and test preparedness through crisis exercises.
Budget for School Safety
Too often security measures are put on hold unless grants are received to cover the costs. Administrators and boards can no longer view school safety as a grantfunded luxury. Grants only provide seed money and not ongoing resources to sustain programs. Safety costs must be factored into annual budgets. Such costs might include:
--Security and police staffing
--Physical security measures such as communications equipment and cameras
--Training for all staff , including support personnel
--Professional consultant services for security assessments and emergency planning evaluations
Administrators seeking urgent security consultation support and security upgrades after high-profile incidents have increasingly acknowledged having no budgets or financial contingency plans for such circumstances.
Don't Comprimise on Cost
Compromising best practices to save front-end costs can lead to greater potential costs in legal liability and reputation damage in the long run. Common risky corner-cutting tactics include:
--Throwing up security equipment to appease parents and media
--Hiring less qualified and questionably competent, but cheaper, safety consultants
--Taking a low-bid, low-cost approach
--Putting out poorly written security service RFPs
--Doing nothing in hope that safety issues will "blow over"
One superintendent recently admitted that while his board received a comprehensive proposal for a safety assessment, he recommended a less thorough "compromise audit" by a less experienced consultant simply to save a few dollars.
Some districts have fallen prey to product vendors trying to gain backdoor access to school budgets by offering free assessments, grant writers and other services. Buyer beware: Free offers are probably too good to be true. Rarely do you truly get something for nothing.
Selecting Service Providers
Administrators and boards also need to become better educated consumers on the intricacies of selecting safety service providers. Many do not understand the different types of security consultants, which include:
--"Big box" consulting firms that dabble in school safety consulting
--Smaller, specialized school security firms
--Part-timers and retirees, such as former educators or retired police officers, consulting for extra cash
--Overnight experts and opportunists
The most important factor is to make sure safety consultants have K12 school safety experience. Administrators should look for documented experience, credibility and understanding of school climate, culture and school-community relations issues from potential safety consultants.
Be proactive and communicative! The key to managing school safety is strong leadership.
Kenneth S. Trump, MPA, is president of National School Safety and Security Services (www.schoolsecurity.org), a Cleveland-based national school safety consulting firm.