For more than two decades, I have worked in the law enforcement and security consulting profession, including several years as a school resource officer (SRO). As an SRO, I worked in five schools that housed all grade levels from pre-kindergarten through twelfth grade.
Educating children from multiple age groups about security was part of my job and a role in which I took much pride. I had the pleasure of presenting safety and security information to my students through group assemblies and individually when approached with a concern.
Taking my background in cybercrimes and online investigations into my role as an SRO, I communicated to students that I was a person they could trust if they knew of threatening behaviors on social media platforms. I had multiple occasions where students approached me with a disturbing post, picture, or action seen on social media. They felt comfortable knowing I could investigate potential issues before they become problems at school.
Our children are bright, and they are concerned about their safety. Below are lessons I learned and can pass on from talking to children about safety and security.
The Talk Begins at Home
While parents play an essential role in school security, it’s important to remember that safety measures begin in the home. Communication is key, and setting examples of honest and open communication with your child will allow them to carry that behavior with them through their educational years and even help to model this behavior to their peers.
It is important to remember that discussing school safety should be approached differently based on a child’s age. This type of conversation will continue to change with ever-evolving school policies, social media interactions, and acts of violence that happen as our children grow. Remember to be mindful of what you say and how the information is presented. Below, I break down aged-based advice on how to discuss the issue of school safety and security with your child.
Elementary School (Kindergarten through Grade 4)
Young children need simple information on school security explained in brief sentences. The conversation should include assuring your child that their school is safe and that adults are there to protect them. Simple examples of school safety should be explained to them, such as keeping all exterior doors closed and locked, having teachers monitor the playground, and participating in emergency drills during the school day.
Younger students may not understand an emergency drill, so it is important to communicate with them about how it makes them feel. Explain to them that these drills keep them safe and that it is important to follow their teachers' directions. Ask your child questions such as “What did you hear or see during this drill?” or “How do the drills make you feel?” to understand what they are thinking and feeling during these times.
Even at this young age, your child needs to understand that teachers and counselors in their school are there to help. Elementary school students that may have a school resource officer present should know that this is another trusted adult that can help keep them safe and be an additional mentor for them. Emphasize to your child the importance of talking about their concerns and expressing their feelings when something is wrong.
Upper Elementary and Middle School (Grades 5 through 8)
At this age, it is important to help your child remember that information on acts of violence towards a school can vary between news sources, social media platforms, and peers. Your child may start asking more questions about how safe they are and what is being done to protect them at school. More than 90% of youth today use social media, leaving no room for doubt that their ideas and concerns stem from excessive and problematic use of these platforms.
If your child is allowed access to social media at this age, it is important to be vigilant about what information they could see. Be proactive in monitoring all of their online activity.
Social media can be a door of opportunity for communication regarding safety and security. Instill trust in your child regarding their activity online. Ensure that you can be someone they come to if they see activity or information that makes them feel threatened or could put them or someone they know in danger.
Discuss the efforts that their school is putting forward to provide a safe learning environment. Talk through the safety procedures your child is familiar with at their school and ask them to explain what they do during a drill and how they feel about it. Have your child talk to you about who they consider a mentor at their school and who they feel comfortable going to if they need help.
One of the most important lessons I try to instill in my children, especially at this age, is using manners and being polite toward everyone. All parents hope their children will carry these values throughout adolescence and adulthood. While we want our children to continue to be respectful of all peers and adults in their school, remember that some manners should be separated from the action regarding school security.
Remind your child that opening a door for anyone trying to enter the school is not allowed. Schools have security measures to verify that every visitor has a school-related purpose for being there.
In my experience as a school safety and security assessor, there were multiple occasions where I was granted access to a school through a side door or the main entryway without even speaking to an office worker. It is important to remember that parent visitors should not let other adults piggyback through an open door into the school.
High School (Grades 9 through 12)
As children age into high school, they will have strong and varying opinions about the causes of violence in schools and society. Their access to news reports and social media information will resonate more with them, and they will begin to express their opinion about making schools safer and more secure. Continue to reassure them that their schools are safe. Validate their feelings and let them know it is okay to respond emotionally to a tragedy.
Emphasize their role in maintaining safe schools by following school safety guidelines. As with the discussions for a middle school-aged student, this includes remembering to not provide building access to anyone seeking entrance into the school, reporting strangers or strange behaviors on school grounds, and reporting threats against school safety to a trusted adult, whether it’s to a school resource officer, or a parent at home if a threat is seen online.
Communication at this age may often seem very difficult, but don’t assume that your child knows all the facts and information about safety and security because they brush you off by saying, “yeah, yeah, I know.” Through all of the issues of gun violence in schools discussed in news stories, it can appear that these acts are happening everywhere.
Explain that the chances of a serious violent act happening in your child’s school are still statistically low, and they should remember that when they are exposed to future news incidents. It is still important to remind them that it is better to be safe than sorry, and reporting any suspicious messages, threats, or activities should be done as soon as possible.
A Parent’s Job is Never Done
As the mother of a toddler and stepmother of a middle schooler, I have learned that a parent must wear many hats. Between being a caretaker, provider, mentor, and chauffeur, amongst many other things, it’s easy to see how we can get burned out by the monotony of day-to-day routines.
Putting safety and security first can take a lot of effort but understanding how to have these discussions with your children can help to ease some concerns to know they recognize the importance of everyone’s role in maintaining safe and secure schools.
One vital piece of advice I can offer is to make sure you don’t become complacent with an “out of sight, out of mind” mentality. Just because your child is not discussing issues they are seeing or experiencing doesn’t mean they do not exist. Stay proactive in initiating these conversations, and keep your child engaged in face-to-face communication. Talk openly and honestly about your feelings regarding acts of violence in schools, as it will help your child recognize that they are not alone.
These age-appropriate ways of starting and continuing communication with your child will help throughout their many wonderful years in school. Watching your child grow in a comforting, educationally stimulating environment is a relief that allows us to enjoy all of the milestones in their life that we, as parents know go by too fast.