I started teaching twenty years ago. I haven’t been doing this forever, but I have been doing it long enough to see educational trends (some good, some bad) come and go. One consistent truth is that the way educators and staffers ensure the safety of kids constantly evolves. When I was starting out, safety was “nice” to talk about — something we discussed occasionally, but not something we prioritized in meetings. Now it has come to the fore. Haphazard fire drills have been replaced with well-considered programs. Still, communication remains spotty. A lot of parents don’t really know what goes into making a school building safe. Short answer: a lot. Police, district officials, and security consultants are involved. Teachers are trained. It’s not all about gun drills (but it’s about those as well).
Phrases that have become a common language for the kids in my school and district — evacuation procedure, active shooter drill, shelter-in-place drill — are phrases I never heard in middle school. We used to maybe do a fire drill once a month; we now have two drills a month and only one is a fire drill. Teachers don’t know when they’ll happen or what kind of drill might come up. Each specific drill has a unique protocol. The staff is well versed on what to do and the amount of drills we have during the school year makes procedures almost second nature. We can’t stop crisis situations from happening, but we can try to avoid panic.
There are other steps we take as well. Nobody gets into our building without having to go through the main office and provide proper ID, or if they have a device that magnetically unlocks the door to get in. That applies to every staff member in our building. At the start of every day, teachers unlock their classroom doors to get in. We are encouraged, not required, to have the doors to our classrooms closed, which also means locked, during instruction.
Recently, a threatening message was written in one of the student bathrooms. A student reported it to a teacher, who promptly notified the administration. Administration put the school in a “shelter in place” drill. While the hallways were emptied and all the students were accounted for, members of the police, administration, and our superintendent searched the school until satisfied that no one was in immediate danger. Students were dismissed at regular time and parents were notified of the incident. All of this took maybe 10 minutes.
On the heels of that incident, each school in our district now has a dedicated police officer assigned to them during the school day. That happened the very next day. Safety approaches don’t just evolve. They evolve very quickly.
Despite all of the precautions we take as a school, I think the biggest safeguard in keeping our schools safe has nothing to do with security cameras, or magnetic locks, or safety drills. It has to do with the people inside the building. Each and every staff member genuinely cares about the students in our school. We take the time to get to know them, and we check up on what’s happening in their lives. This doesn’t come without trust, and that doesn’t come easy — because a middle school kid can spot a fake a mile away.
Our biggest preventative tactic is that we get involved. We help run after-school programs that have nothing to do with academics. We attend their games and plays and band concerts. Mostly, though, we listen. After that, we the educators get together and talk. This takes time, but it’s critical and it’s the important safety measure people outside of the education system don’t hear about. Each day, we meet as a grade level to discuss how everyone is doing. Most of the talk centers around tests and grades, but if someone notices a certain kid isn’t quite acting like themselves, we address it. Immediately.
Our daily meetings are the single biggest safeguard we utilize to prevent the awful events that wind up on the news. I think we do it well. Are we prepared? I think so.