As the end of summer nears, our children will return to school. Every day we will put our children on a bus or drop them off at the front door of their school and think, “Will the school keep my child safe?”
My job as a school security assessor enables me to evaluate school safety and security. Having sufficient physical security, safety policies, and security technology promotes a safe learning environment.
When it comes to schools, often, the security measures we can see and touch are not enough. Preventing school violence from starting is one of the most significant ways to stop it. The all too familiar statement “see something, say something” is a constant mantra to our kids throughout their school years. Still, unfortunately, it continues to be easier said than done.
A study by Sandy Hook Promise showed that 93% of school shooters planned the attack, and students, friends, and family saw warning signs in most documented active shooter cases. The key is to get those warning signs communicated to the school administration in advance of the violence.
Building a safe culture within our schools is critical to safety and security, but encouraging students to report their concerns is no easy task. Below I will discuss ways schools and parents can encourage students to speak up.
Students often need to realize the importance of the information they have. They usually wave off threats as a joke or don't want to get their friends in trouble. Getting through to them requires more than a wall poster or an ID card sticker.
Students are likelier to report threats and concerning behaviors when they believe the school will take their information seriously and respond promptly. For a child, feeling seen and heard is an important step toward building rapport and gaining trust. Research demonstrates that the level of trust between students and staff influences the willingness of students to report threats.
Establishing rapport between students and staff is critical to building a trusting environment where students feel included and comfortable coming forward with information. Building rapport can be accomplished by smiling, listening, asking questions, being respectful and sincere, and providing encouragement.
Staff can also stand in the hall between classes and pay attention to non-verbal behavior. Check in with students who seem anxious or down. Students feel more empowered to report when they believe they are included as part of a larger school community.
Promote Anonymous Reporting
Students are more likely to report safety concerns if schools use communication methods that are common among school-age kids, such as phone apps, websites, and/or text messaging. Using an anonymous reporting option can help address students’ fear of being ostracized by peers as a result of reporting.
Many students are afraid that they will be labeled as a snitch. It is harder for them to think of the bigger picture when they are so concerned with real-time consequences from their peers if they are seen as someone who tells on others. Promoting anonymous reporting can help them think about safety ahead of peer pressure.
The OK2SAY Michigan Student Safety Program is an example of a school district providing a 100% anonymous way to report information on students' threats or struggles before a situation turns tragic. This type of reporting should be accessible and safe.
The privacy of students and those impacted should be of utmost importance. Ensuring anonymity and confidentiality with incident reporting will help increase the likelihood that students will report the security issues they hear.
Continue to Emphasize the Importance of Reporting
Communicate about reporting as part of the daily routine. The program must be understandable and part of your school’s mission to develop a positive school environment. Use promotional materials and events throughout the year to remind students of the initiative. Just as muscle memory occurs through repeated physical training, there is a greater chance of memory retention for important information the more it is presented.
School administration should take the opportunity to engage in follow-up processes to demonstrate that school staff are promoting the reporting process. Schools should use all-school assemblies, classroom presentations, and other reminders that every student is responsible for keeping the school community safe.
Research has shown that school districts see an uptick in reports immediately following such training events. Consistent follow-through and communication will help to ease student fears about reporting and build confidence that school staff takes student concerns seriously.
Setting Examples at Home
Parents also play an essential role in school security, and it’s important to remember that safety measures begin in the home. Communication is key. Setting examples of honest and open communication with your child will allow them to carry that behavior through their school years and help model it to their peers.
Humans naturally learn through modeling behaviors. Parents and teachers are at the forefront of setting examples of kindness, empathy, and interdependence for children. This type of modeling behavior also includes doing the right thing, even if it’s a hard thing to do.
Putting safety and security first can take a lot of effort. Understanding how to have these discussions with your children can help to ease concerns and promote the importance of their role in maintaining safe and secure schools.
There are many resources available to teachers and parents online. Understanding our roles as mentors and how to relay this information to our children is an important first step. One such resource is CISA’s School Safety Task Force and the U.S. Secret Service National Threat Assessment Center’s K-12 Bystander Reporting Toolkit, created to improve and encourage reporting.
Building a Better Future
With knowledge and encouragement, we can individually take the steps needed to change the culture and make a difference in our schools. Maintaining a reliable approach and regular communication will alleviate students' anxieties regarding reporting and instill trust that school personnel genuinely prioritize student concerns. A nurturing school environment that prioritizes safety and inclusiveness will further motivate students and others to come forward with reports.
Studies indicate that the degree of trust among students and school personnel impacts the extent to which students are willing to disclose potential threats. It is crucial to foster a connection between students and school staff to create a safe and supportive atmosphere where students feel valued and at ease sharing information. When students have confidence that the school will handle their information seriously and respond quickly, they are more inclined to report threats and worrisome behaviors.
In general, students feel a greater sense of empowerment to report incidents when they perceive themselves as part of a wider school community. When signs are seen and help is sought, we can end school violence together.