Part 1 of a blog reporting on CEP’s 2013 National School Safety Summit on Oct. 24. The summit included presentations and discussions which largely fell into two broad categories: preventing violence with improved school climate and engagement, and crisis management responses to active situations of violence. Look for the second part on crisis management and active shooter situations in coming days.

School safety promoted by engaging students, parents and promoting dialogue

Meeting in the wake of yet another school Michele Borbashooting—this one in Sparks, NV—speakers and attendees at CEP’s first-ever School Safety Summit Oct. 24 in Washington, D.C., rallied around the ideas of  greater student engagement, wider community involvement and more robust support from the federal government.

Dr. Michele Borba, the first speaker at the summit, said school safety is not only about preparing for a crisis—it’s about creating a safe school climate where bullying is reduced and students trust faculty and staff. Since most school shooters tell someone (usually a peer) before the event, creating trusting relationships with adults and mechanisms for students to anonymously report threats can make huge strides in preventing a tragedy.

Borba also stressed the importance of staff training to have a common understanding of bullying and identifying students that are at risk. There is no good profile to identify potential shooters—it’s more important to stay alert and connected with the students. Surprisingly, “60% of student shooters were never or rarely in trouble at school, and 41% were doing fine in school at the time of the attack…the only commonality is that they each had been bullied.”
David Esquith, director of the U.S. Dept. of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students emphasized that the Dept. of Education had several holistic programs in place, and others on the way, including a new School Climate Survey that would be available “at no cost” to help schools assess the mental health of their student bodies. The idea is to gather as much intelligence as possible to better inform safety policies.

“Usually, when one of these incidents takes place, someone in the school knew beforehand, or at least suspected that something might happen, but didn’t tell anyone,” explained Esquith. Toward that end, he also recommended that schools train teachers in “Mental Health First Aid” with students that could also help prevent tragedy before it happens. In support of those and other related efforts, he suggested that teachers and administrators familiarize themselves with these websites: www.safesupportivelearning.ed.gov, and www.rems.ed.gov

Of course, speakers also stressed that educators cannot do this alone.

We have to find ways to engage young people to be part of the solution,” said speaker Rick Phillips, founder and executive director of Community Matters, a consulting and training nonprofit based in Sebastopol, CA. Its “Safe School Ambassadors” violence prevention program has been used in more than 1,000 schools across North America. Rather than a top-down, “outside-in” strategy that imposes security with adult-driven, punitive policies, Phillips advocates an “inside-out” approach to safety that fosters student buy-in and emphasizes relationships. It’s all part of Community Matters’ Whole School Climate Framework. http://community-matters.org/

Fellow speaker Dr. David Osher agrees. “Students have to own this,” he told the group. Dr. Osher is vice president of the American Institutes for Research, Washington, D.C., where he is co-director of its Human and Social Development program.  He added, “I am particularly encouraged by thoughtful programs like the one in Chicago (at North Lawndale College Prep, www.nlcphs.org) where students are assigned a counselor for every year they are in high school, plus one for a fifth year, to see how they are doing during their first year in college.”
Going that extra mile is crucial in the ongoing battle to improve school safety and inevitably the whole learning experience. A child’s education is too important to be overtaken by a focus on fear and his or her own basic self-preservation instincts.

Parents, too, have an enormously important role. Posing her question to Esquith, one attendee asked, “I teach emotionally disabled youth. What do you do when parents won’t accept help, or the advice to pursue help for their child?”

His response: “I was a special ed teacher, myself, so I hear you. All I can say is that you just have to keep trying to get through to them, and be aware that many of these parents have unresolved issues of their own.” Esquith also suggested visiting www.findyouthinfo.gov and reading the report entitled Engaging the Hard-to-Engage Family. http://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/oese/oshs/aboutus.html