The stress of sending kids back to school these days goes far beyond worrying about the challenges of homework, schedules and peer relationships. Looming behind all of that parental anxiety is a bigger concern. Increasingly, parents are worried about their children’s safety while at school.
The 2018 PDK Poll of the Public’s Attitudes Toward the Public Schools conducted by Phi Delta Kappa International, a professional organization for teachers, found that 34 percent of parents fear for their kids’ safety at school. That number is up more than 20 percent since the study was last conducted five years ago.
Most parents across the country, including in Northeast Ohio, hope school districts are addressing safety concerns.
Nicole Settoni, a mother of two whose family just moved from a town in Washington State to Berea, says, “We lived in a small military town on an island and I wasn’t overly concerned about school safety. I am hoping that the staff and teachers are trained to deal with emergencies properly.”
All Ohio schools are mandated by law to submit emergency operation plans to Ohio Homeland Security. Homeland Security experts conduct comprehensive reviews of the safety plans and then help schools make improvements in their security efforts.
Willoughby-Eastlake City Schools allocated nearly $20,000 of its permanent improvement budget to purchase 3M Safety & Security Window Films for buildings throughout the district. The safety film, which was installed in some buildings this year, makes it difficult for an intruder to get in by slowing the ability to break through windows or glass doors.
“The district understands that the most important factor in minimizing harm to students when encountering a perpetrator is to slow them down,” Willoughby-Eastlake City Schools Superintendent Stephen Thompson says. “Slowing the assailant buys critical time in which first responders can be on the way to assist during such an emergency.”
According to Berea City School District Superintendent Michael Sheppard, the district’s administrators, staff and students go through extensive active shooter training on a regular basis throughout the school year.
Assistant Superintendent Jeffrey Grosse added that just last year, high schoolers underwent a significant active shooter walk-through.
“When we practice active shooter drills, we try to make it realistic,” Grosse says. “Students practice with SWAT team members putting their arms up. You see how serious kids take it when they see the SWAT team there with rifles.”
Some districts also are forging strong and collaborative partnerships with local safety forces. For Independence Local Schools, forging such partnerships has been a huge advantage in devising a strong safety plan, according to Assistant Superintendent Tom Dreiling.
“I am really excited about the collaboration we have this year,” he says. “We have had true dialogue in a few short meetings that have forced us to think about things we otherwise would not have thought about. If we didn’t work together, keeping our schools safe would be a nightmare.”
Locally-based national security expert Tim Dimoff notes there are things that schools can do to improve security.
“If a school can’t afford to put a police officer at the door at the start of the day, why not put a minimum of two adults standing at the door?” Dimoff says. “Require students to carry clear or mesh backpacks only. Designate only one or two doors where kids can enter the building. Require every adult visitor to sign in and show a driver’s license. The more we narrow down the ability to get into the building, the safer we make it.”
Ohio Homeland Security’s Protection Manager James Bowman stresses that there is no blanket way to solve security issues, that “each school has different security measures and different needs.”
Talking to Kids About School Safety
Since schools are concerned with improving school safety, students in all grades across Northeast Ohio might participate in conversations and drills designed to prepare them in the event of a real emergency. Parents may find that their school- age children are in need of a deeper discussion around school safety. It is really important that parents keep explanations
to what is developmentally appropriate for their children. To guide parents through difficult conversations about scenarios involving school violence, school psychologist Natalie Borrell offers the following advice:
KINDERGARTEN THROUGH THIRD GRADE
- Give brief and simple explanations: For this age group, you must filter how much information you provided them. Do provide facts, but don’t go into specific detail. For example, if young children become aware of a school shooting with fatalities, don’t provide details on how children were killed. Instead, say that something terrible happened and that the police were there to help. Also, let them know that parents picked their children up and took them home. While the goal is not to shelter kids completely, it is critical that we ease their anxieties.
- Provide reassurance: Stress that all members of the community work daily to keep the school safe. Help these children understand that practicing emergency drills will prepare them in case of an emergency and that adults will always be around to help.
- Allow for expression: Some kids at the early elementary age may not have the exact words to express their feelings of anxiety. It could be helpful to allow them to draw what they are feeling. Whereas they may not be able to articulate that they’re feeling anxious, they can draw pictures that will allow you to put words to their feelings.
UPPER ELEMENTARY AND MIDDLE SCHOOL
- Discuss school and community efforts: This age group is more vocal in questioning safety at school. Offer concrete examples of how school and community leaders are working to provide safe schools.
- Develop awareness that they can help: Conduct conversations that make this age group aware that they are an important part of the process in keeping schools safe. Tell them the role they can play in helping to identify peers whom they feel lack support or are struggling with making rational decisions. They can do this by being aware if someone is behaving unusually at school, in the classroom or at the lunch table, or even on social media.
- Expand the conversation on how they can help: Talk to high schoolers about how they can become part of the effort to keep schools safe. For example, maybe they can join an anti-violence themed club in the school, report strangers on the property, or notify an adult of students who may be exhibiting aggressive behaviors.