by David Irwin
“There is no playbook for schools, and they need all the help they can get.”
After another mind-numbing school shooting at the end of November 2021, three leading experts on school safety collaborated on an opinion article in EdWeek that I think about often. They pointed out that “we must recognize how under-resourced schools and communities are to both assess and respond to threats and provide the training, guidance, and resources necessary to keep students safe.”
Shortly after it was published, I shared the article with my fellow board members (I’m an elected school board member in the district where my kids attend). I said to them then, as I have repeated many times at Board meetings, “I never want us to be in a position to have to say we could have done more to prevent school violence, ever.” But I also know this responsibility falls to district leaders who are already taxed with so many other urgent priorities.
Superintendents, who predominantly come from backgrounds grounded in teaching (i.e, education major in college, Master’s in Education, teacher, principal, assistant superintendent, etc.), are charged with managing so much more. In addition to teaching and learning, they oversee large and complex budgets, serve as chiefs of communication, navigate the expectations of diverse and demanding boards, and are responsible for school safety.
In some candid discussions I’ve had with superintendents, they have confided that though they say school safety is their biggest priority, it's just not true. There is data to suggest the superintendents I've spoken to are not the only ones who feel this way. In a survey of Nebraska superintendents, for example, researchers found that superintendents didn't think their emergency management plans were as effective as the importance they placed on them. And it's not because they are being neglectful; there are just so many competing priorities, and as referenced in the EdWeek article above, superintendents are not experts in school safety and there is no playbook for a comprehensive school safety plan.
I applaud organizations like the federal government’s schoolsafety.gov that have amassed great resources to help schools, and Safe and Sound Schools and the Sandy Hook Promise, which have developed, organized and created libraries of resources to support schools with safety. Unfortunately, when I speak to many superintendents and board members about these resources, they are generally unfamiliar with them, or have not used them. And it’s not because school safety isn't important to them, but rather the competing priorities I mentioned earlier.
Over the summer I attended the School Safety Advocacy Council’s annual National School Safety Conference and Exposition, the largest conference dedicated to school safety and security. The keynote speakers, who are also national experts in their field, all shared a similar sentiment my colleague Daniela Doyle highlighted in her recent post, the most impactful strategies are often the simplest and most cost effective.
But this is not what I see in practice. Instead, I see investments largely in physical security and active-shooter drills, which research shows do little to prevent school shootings. There has also been a recent wave of unfunded mandates that do nothing more than create a “check the box” mentality to just be in compliance, but not necessarily do what is really needed.
School safety is not just a law enforcement responsibility. It takes leadership and dedicated effort to prioritize implementing a multi-tiered approach. This includes physical security, mental health supports, social media monitoring, anonymous reporting systems, anti-bullying practices, to name a few.
School safety is neither easy, cheap, nor convenient. And I know it's just one more thing in an already unreasonable set of expectations on superintendents.
I think the two important questions superintendents and school boards need to ask is where do we need more expertise, time, or guidance to improve school safety and how do we know we’ve done everything we can?
David Irwin is a school board member in New Jersey and co-founder of Thru. He has advised hundreds of PK-12 district staff and superintendents in his career and previously led education practices at KPMG and Gartner. David can be reached by email: firstname.lastname@example.org