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Thoughts on School Safety

I’ve written way too many words, but sometimes I have to write to think. Below are some thoughts I’ve had while learning about the Uvalde, TX, school shooting. I’m not interested in debate but share this for anyone interested in a recently retired school principal’s thoughts.

After teaching music ten years (and loving it), I became a school principal (and loved it). I took some pride in the fact that learning was usually at the center of my thinking though school safety did sometimes compete with my thoughts which was reasonable since kids learn better in a safe environment.

During the later years of my career, the focus on safety had to increase. In our district, all staff went through ALICE Intruder Training (excellent, and expensive), and Stop the Bleed (very good, and free to us).

Among many actions taken to improve school safety, our school had a highly qualified police officer on campus, added many surveillance cameras, and locked all entrance doors and classroom doors. When a visitor was identified on camera, office personnel unlocked the door so the visitor could enter.

Some were saddened to see these changes in school security. I was encouraged that such high priority was placed on our children in the Alma Schools. I couldn’t enter a safety deposit box vault in a local bank without passing through security and gaining access with bank personnel. Are our kids less valuable than anything found in a bank?

I used to walk the perimeter of the campus regularly, visit classrooms, and walk the hallways. I often played through scenarios in my mind, rehearsing the actions I might take if an emergency occurred.  This type of thinking was unpleasant but important. On several occasions I walked the campus with parents, students, or law officers, asking them to look for safety concerns.

When I heard about the shooting in Uvalde, TX, I felt a familiar sick feeling in my chest and began familiar patterns of thought, trying to determine how different actions would have avoided loss of life. Even though I’m not a principal anymore, I tried to imagine what we might have done on our campus. Every teacher in the country probably had similar thoughts.

Mistakes were made in Uvalde, but I think most schools would fail in varying degrees in the face of someone with excessive firepower.

For Uvalde to succeed, it appears that a SWAT Team with breaching equipment would have had to be on campus to subdue the well-equipped 18-year-old shooter. It’s going to take a lot of well-equipped SWAT Teams to cover our schools nationwide…

Since this is a complex problem that defies easy solutions, maybe we should come at it from a variety of angles. Maybe we should take many careful actions to reduce risks in our schools. Maybe some of those actions would involve making it at least inconvenient for 17-21 year-olds to purchase lots of ammo and weapons. I got a learner’s permit before I could get a real driver’s license.  My truck is registered and insured, as it should be.

A wise father in Alma purchased a single-shot bolt-action rifle for his son when the young man was old enough to start hunting with his dad. That young man acquired skills and good judgment in using that rifle. His dad said the boy learned to aim carefully because he had a single bullet to take down a deer. Later, when he was older, he was able to shoot other guns safely and accurately.

Some say, “Arm the teachers.” I assume they’re including the principal, secretary, custodians, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and maintenance workers. I’ve visited with police officers about the reduction in shooting accuracy when well-trained law officers are in a stressful situation. Imagine an educator with limited training using the gun and a few bullets issued as part of her limited teaching supplies to confront someone with a superior weapon and a backpack full of high-capacity clips. Might make some of us feel better to “arm the teachers” but it would be very expensive and have little if any positive effect.

The SROs and professional crisis trainers I worked with during the last few years all said that in a perfect scenario, students would move quickly away from a threat, leaving the bad guy alone with the SRO as the only two armed humans in the school. I’d bet my life on the well-trained SRO, but the outcome of even the best judgment and actions is unknown.

Reflecting after the Uvalde, TX school shooting

A couple of thoughts about school safety since I spent a few years in schools…

I’ve watched students and teachers take many actions to improve school safety. I’ve seen teachers in tears during and following emergency drills or training while trying to determine how to best prepare for possible intruder scenarios. I’ve watched the Alma School District make safety a priority with the addition of SROs, surveillance cameras, a secure front entrance that unlocks after approval, and more. Most importantly, school safety remained at the forefront of thinking even when it wasn’t in the news.

Some politicians are now suddenly passionate about hardening our schools. Some might be sincere but I suspect it’s a diversion. IF they were serious, they’d investigate the actual costs of even a few of the things they’re suggesting. 1 Hiring multiple armed guards for the entrance of every school in our nation? 2 Passing every human through metal detectors before being approved to enter? 3 Razor wire fences around all schools in the nation? 4 Bulletproof glass on all exterior windows? There are other proposals flying around that’s mostly smoke and mirrors.

Politicians throw out these ideas and ask indignantly why all their suggestions aren’t being adopted, but it’s a delay tactic in hopes that “this too shall pass.” They want us to lose interest and history says that, given time, we will.

What are some of us interested in? How about making it just a little bit inconvenient for kids to purchase certain weapons and large volumes of ammo until they reach an appropriate age and pass some competency barriers sorta like I did to get the privilege of driving.

Since this is a complex problem, maybe we should approach it from a variety of angles. Yes, improve safety procedures and facilities, but reasonable requirements for gun ownership and use should be something we’re willing to do.

“But criminals don’t follow the rules.” That’s true, but it doesn’t stop us from requiring a driver’s license, registration, and liability insurance. And, the existence of rules makes it more obvious when someone is acting outside of the behaviors expected by society.

Just in Case

As a recently retired school principal, these thoughts came to mind while listening to people opine on how our schools should operate with the current pandemic that is affecting many nations right now.

We do fire and tornado drills, not because we expect fires and tornados to strike our school. We want children to be prepared, and have a sense of safety, essential for learning. We do intruder drills, not because we expect intruders, but we want students to know what to do…just in case.

As a principal, I sometimes walked the school halls trying to mentally rehearse my actions if there were an intruder…just in case. After hours, I regularly tested my phone’s PA all-call function while monitoring our campus cameras…just in case. I sometimes walked the campus to rehearse our evacuation routes and be sure there were no obstacles…just in case. All staff, including bus drivers, custodians, maintenance, and cafeteria workers, completed emergency training…just in case. In cooperation with the Alma Police Department, our district made a huge investment to have a school resource officer on every campus…just in case.

Coronavirus requires these same levels of preparation and I’m pleased to say my school of the last nineteen years has made great efforts to prepare. Sadly, the very act of preparing is seen by some through a political lens. Our schools are preparing based on the best info they can get. Schools prepare with no helpful input from Betsy DeVos (National Sec. of Education) since she doesn’t know schools. Schools lack the necessary quick turn-around testing, and some don’t have disinfecting equipment. Fortunately, our schools have disinfecting equipment. I’m sure they’ll acquire faster testing when it becomes available.

Coronavirus doesn’t seem like a “just in case” problem. It’s a “probably and when” problem,” but true to tradition in America, political leaders and self-proclaimed “experts” stand at a distance to make decisions for our schools. Educators are strong and committed. What they need are lots of resources (money, supplies, tools, personnel) and real health experts’ advice.

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Schools are important? Who’d a thought it!

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We’re hearing a lot about the importance of schools from politicians and the media lately. Evidently, schools have an impact on the economics of a community, state, and country. Who’d a thought it!

I’m proud of the district I worked in and its focus on student safety. The district spent some big bucks on sanitizing equipment and involved our staff in making schools as safe as possible when the Corona Virus became an issue. Every school in Arkansas should have this type of equipment, and the supplies needed to combat viruses and bacteria now and in the future. Our schools need national and state coordinated testing with quick results to ensure students and staff are safe, with adjustments happening quickly when needed.

All students should have access to the internet and devices to access live face-to-face learning remotely when needed. I’m talking about hotspots in our most remote areas and high-speed signals that allow clear communication. In March, when we didn’t return from spring break, teachers did their best with the available technology for distance learning. They were amazing and parents were supportive, but every district in the state should have state-of-the-art distance learning technology fully funded so that we’re ready for any interruption in education, whether related to pandemics, weather, or student health. 

Schools need a small army of social workers to visit homes quickly when students become disengaged or at-risk. Social workers could help set up positive learning environments for students and deliver food or resources where needed when students are unable to attend school.

I don’t have the space here to discuss the professional development and training teachers are trying to squeeze in this summer due to the current pandemic. Much more training than usual is necessary to prepare for new ways of instruction for an unknown future. Additional training means added expenses for districts and a sacrifice of time for teachers.

Right now, I personally know teachers who are sewing or hiring someone to sew masks so their students will have fashionable masks and no one will be uncomfortable with an ugly mask. As a principal, I witnessed teachers spending their own money for the extras they wanted for their students. Before 2018, teachers could deduct these teaching expenses, but they’re now limited to $250 which is a joke. Most spend much more. 

As a country, we’ve scraped by on the cheap for years in the area of public education. If airlines, banks, auto plants, or other essential businesses need funds to stay open, we spend lavishly. I use the word “lavishly” because it’s so alien to our thinking about education. It’s now time to spend lavishly and without apologies on public schools. Schools impact on our economy and quality of life. As an added benefit, investing in schools will give us healthier citizens with good judgment and hopeful futures. These are the types of people I want in my community.

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