My friends in law enforcement are some of the best people I know. Their dedication to keeping the peace and protecting us all is profound, and I’ve found them to be folks with a good sense of humor, integrity, and an unexpected optimism about the human condition. Like educators, their work brings them in contact with all segments of society, including those places most of us would rather avoid. I see the local police officers I get to work with as allies, and they’ve earned my trust as I’ve worked with them evaluate our lock down drills and review our safety plan, and in the cases they’re on campus to help a student or family grapple with the choices that a young person has made.
This was my starting position when a conversation with a veteran teacher the other day got me thinking about the way administrators like me approach school safety with our staffs. I’ve been called a little wonky about school safety (a badge I proudly wear, as I did a silver sheriff’s star when I was a kid) and my friend came to me to talk about the way we get information to our teachers about what to do in particular emergency situations.
Now I’m the guy who brought in the local police to provide an “Active Shooter Training” on the first day teachers came back from summer, so when he started asking me questions about how effective I thought that presentation was for our teachers I puffed out my chest a little bit and started talking about how important I thought those preparations are. Yeah, he agreed, but how effective are they?
As educators we strive to help students learn, not just tick a box that we’ve taught a particular bit of information. In classrooms we provide students with opportunities to ask meaningful questions, work hard to help them think critically, and do our best to provide perspective on how the subject matter at hand relates to their lives, and the lives they’ll lead as they become adults. We strive to help students weigh sources for validity and arguments for worth. Had the training that started our year done that?
Four uniformed officers, who had listened to us when we told them that this was the teachers first day back, and that they would still be coming off summer mode, presented information to us on safety measures during an active shooter situation. They’d framed the discussion using a memorable analogy; in an emergency situation, they said, people fall into three categories: sheep, sheepdogs, and wolves. The wolves were the “bad guys,” out to hurt the herd; the sheep were our students, who would be panicked in such a situation; and the sheepdogs were police and some of us, there to protect and guide.
The officers stressed the dangers of such a possible situation, referenced the close to home school shooting in Carlsbad still in our collective memory, and played 911 tapes to illustrate the very real panic that occurs when something so horrible happens. They urged teachers to think about how they would respond to that kind of emergency situation, playing the “what if” game in their minds, and discussed options when confronted with an active shooter.
Knowing that the importance of school safety is paramount to all we do, I asked myself: did the presentation give my teachers opportunities to ask meaningful questions? Did it help them think critically? Did it provide perspective?
Honestly confronting the question of how well I’d done at giving my teachers information on this element of school safety gave me pause.
I’d been thorough in my preparation of the school safety plan, but I realized that I’d done less to thoughtfully prepare my presentation of that overall plan than back when I was an English teacher and I prepared a lesson on Nathaniel Hawthorne. My focus had been on getting the important material taught, but I might have done more to help my staff really learn.
Independent of what my teachers thought of the first day presentation (many had liked it, though one had questioned the notion of wolves and sheepdogs as an iffy analogy) as this teacher asked me about its effectiveness, I wondered if I’d done enough to put into practice the paternal feeling I have as a school principal, looking out for the people at my school. I had farmed out some of the work; it was men in uniforms, not me, who told my staff about what to do in a “lock down” situation, should an “active shooter” come on campus. And I’d invited that presentation to be given in relative isolation, not as part of an articulated comprehensive safety plan that would include what to do in the (more likely) case of an earthquake or fire in the chemistry lab, or even a lock down that wasn’t part of an active shooter threat.
In retrospect, I think I’d do better job of encouraging learning if my presentation of this information was an “and” rather than an “or.” It is important to prepare for this most serious (even if remote) possibility, but I shouldn’t isolate the active shooter presentation from the rest of the safety plan.
How powerful it would be to prepare them to lock down, and prepare them to duck and cover, and prepare them to evacuate in case of a fire. To frame the learning in broader terms would not only have given my staff the information they needed, but also the perspective that could help them best with what they would need to do in the case of any emergency.
It’s the comprehensive nature of school safety, and the “Safe and Drug Free School Plan” we develop each year, that makes our preparation so powerful. We have a planned and practiced response for many emergencies, knowing full well that some are less likely than others. As we develop our plans, we’re smart to make sure we help our teachers and students know the difference between them. After all, my friend noticed, students are more likely to get hit by lightning than be involved in an active shooter situation. How much time are we putting into active lightning drills?
That said, the drills we do at a school are profoundly important. As my equally safety minded assistant principal likes to say, we play like we practice, and knowing that we can get the entire student body out of all classrooms and ready to move off campus in three minutes reassures us all. It’s during these and all our drills that teachers model the sense of calm control that is paramount to keeping kids safe. This applies to lock down situations too.
As a fellow who has been in two legitimate lock downs in my career, both called proactively, and neither ending up with any intruder on campus, I know how much they can rattle teachers and students. In those times I felt more comfortable, and was able to show a quiet calm to the students around me, because of the drills my school had conducted. Practicing is important; knowing what to do is vital.
Talking to my safety minded friend, I realized that the things that made me feel most prepared were those things I’d learned from my own site administrators. As educators they were the best teachers, able to filter often anxiety inducing information in such a way as to help teachers know what they had control over (keeping students calm in a safe and orderly classroom) and what they didn’t have control over (needing to know exactly what is happening from a tactical overview vantage point).
As a principal it’s important that I own safety at my school site. That means more than making sure the gates are locked and the safety plan is up to date. It also means that my new teachers have all had opportunities to engage meaningfully with that safety plan. It means that my assistant principal and I are the ones up front providing information to our staff, with both of us working behind the scenes with law enforcement and firefighters to ensure that we have the most up to date information we can have.
I’ve come to believe that the best person to educate educators are fellow educators, and that at my school and with my staff, that includes me.
What, in the end, is the purpose of teaching school safety? The answer is simple: a safe school. To know what to do in any emergency situation, from the more likely to the least likely, is information far more important than anything I could have ever said about The Scarlet Letter. Focusing on what I need my staff to learn is far more important than ticking a box that says they were taught any particular thing.
I want my teachers and students to be ready for everything, and unafraid of anything. I want my school community to be informed, but not alarmed. To get there takes a thoughtful approach, diligent practice, and a dedication to teaching and learning. If we really learn what to do, and how to approach emergency situations, we’ll be able to respond in the way best for all kids …quick as lightning.