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Professional Opinion

Shifting focus of school safety

Today’s leaders must manage a wide range of risks, from bullying to fires to worker’s comp

Today’s climate of budget cuts and shortfalls has increased the importance of risk management in school districts. Insurance premiums can wipe out extensive efforts to reduce costs. In the past, school safety has primarily focused on disaster preparation and security issues, but it has come to mean much more.

School safety is a holistic approach to reducing the risk of injury to education service employees, students and visitors. The person managing risk for a district or school needs a diverse knowledge and skill set, covering: security, student safety procedures, occupational safety,

OSHA regulations and state law, transportation and DOT regulations, and insurance coordination for general liability and worker’s compensation.

And topics like slip-and-falls, playground safety, incident investigation, active shooters, bullying, fire prevention, grounds liability and school resource officer involvement require the safety manager to develop professional competencies that many times are new or have previously not been their professional focus.

Educators are educators first—not professional risk managers. But many times educators are relied upon to wear a variety of hats. School safety is just one of them.

Learning the hard way

I recently interviewed an excellent elementary principal about her involvement in school safety. It was her highest priority, she said, but she also admitted that everything she had learned came from experience.

For example, just the process of purchasing playground equipment made her aware of the many different design standards geared to different age groups. Safety-related issues were new territory for her.

This principal had long mastered pedagogy, mentoring of teacher competency, student discipline and other important aspects of her position. But the added safety-related duties caught her unprepared and relying on others’ advice for success.

Hiring a staff person who is a competent and certified school safety manager would have saved her many hours of learning “on the fly,” so that she could concentrate on her primary job focus.

Safety saves money

The Institute for Safety and Health Management has developed the certified school safety manager professional designation for the purpose of demonstrating competency in school safety management. It recognizes the wide array of knowledge and skill sets, with unique issues and topics relevant to school settings.

The designation allows the school safety professionals, regardless of job title, to display their professionalism. It also enables educators to work toward a level of professional competency in order to better prepare themselves for administration duties or for more varied school safety roles.

The certification recognizes school safety as a professional competency.

Many schools find themselves financially strapped, and funding a full- or part-time safety professional is not a priority. But given the enormous potential cost of incidents in terms of personal damage, facilities damage or issues with the public, the question should be how can we not find a way to have a safety professional on staff?

Perhaps you can offer an incentive so that one or two staffers would be willing to take on safety as an added responsibility. Given today’s increasingly litigious society it is easy to say that competent safety professionals can save significant funds.

Getting parents on board

A school cannot be safe if it is not also secure. Safety has a foundational role in a school’s moral architecture. Moral architecture is defined as the complex interaction of ethics, democratic processes, personal relations, policies, attitudes, education aims, reflective habits and communication.

Leadership permeates moral architecture. Influencing all members of a school to prioritize “safety” increases your ability to lead them in all areas. If teachers are not practicing occupational safety then it will never become the students’ core value.

Parent involvement is vital for the success of many educational programs, sports teams and school leaders. Safety is one perception that can increase or destroy public perception and parental involvement.

The school principals that I interviewed about their responsibilities and keys for success unanimously mentioned parental involvement and concern for the school’s reputation. The safety of the student is paramount in this concern. Educators often act in place of the parent when it comes to student safety.

School districts across the nation are challenged with limited budgets. Liability in workplace injuries, student injuries, security and possible injury to visitors present challenges that can hurt overall education quality.

The price of implementing strong additional safety measures may indeed be a financial burden, but the potential cost of not doing enough to ensure a safe and secure learning environment could be far greater.

What is ISHM?

The Institute for Safety and Health Management recognizes its mission as serving all industries by providing accredited certifications for managers and practitioners of environmental, health and safety programs. It prides itself on being achievable, affordable and professionally valuable.

Recognized by the Council of Engineering and Scientific Specialty Boards and a member of the National Safety Council, the institute’s future involvement with education and school safety promises to help educators meet present and future school safety challenges.

R. G. Dotson is an associate professor of fire protection & para-medicine sciences at Eastern Kentucky University.