It was early Fall of 2008 and my wife and I were in attendance for a Kindergarten Back to School Night for one of our daughters. As a sitting school administrator, I was careful to wear my “parent” hat that evening, and I anxiously listened to the teacher discuss the newest trends in curriculum and other class initiatives with the packed room of parents from our quiet, suburban community. Like other towns, our district was facing an enrollment versus classroom space crisis with plans to expand buildings in the not-to-distant future. As I peered around the room looking at parents who, most likely, I would know for the next 12 years, something struck me as odd. “Where was the door?” I hadn’t noticed it upon entering, but my daughter’s classroom was a shared space adjacent to the hallway and blocked by a partition half-wall.
“Parents, any questions?”
I had to ask.
“How do you do a lockdown in here?”
The room fell silent. The teacher – stunned. My wife, mortified by such a non-classroom related topic. One father chuckled and said, “What’s a lockdown?”
“Well, we run across the hall and go to Mrs. Farley’s room,” explained the teacher.
That answer seemed acceptable to the rest of the room, but not to me. Why wasn’t anyone else concerned? That answer was simple – bad things just don’t happen here in our school!
What we once learned from Columbine has now been surpassed by the latest school tragedy in Newtown Connecticut, and we live once again in a time where innocence is easily shattered by the hands of some deranged individual. In the aftermath, school districts around the globe have examined their current security and are contemplating changes to district protocols, many which include adding armed personnel or police officers in school buildings. Besides these new measures, districts are tightening their own internal security plans, ensuring that lockdown procedures are correct and active shooter drills are practiced on a regular basis and in the presence of local law enforcement officials.
As districts continue to prepare for the worst-case scenarios, there are more than several reasons to “lockdown” a building or put a district security plan into action. From domestic violence disputes between parents; students from other towns entering a building to start an altercation; to a student “off” his medication and acting violent, safety drills and lockdown procedures are utilized for a variety of situations to ensure that innocent students do not become unsuspecting victims.
Although most of these security measures contain confidential material that is not made public, it is important for parents to know exactly what their school district has in place to handle every possible emergency situation. Although this is not a common or comfortable topic for parents to discuss with their child’s building principal or superintendent, there are two main reasons why the conversation should take place. First, don’t assume that everything is being done that can be done to protect your child. The conversation itself should work to put your mind a little more at ease after you are made fully aware that everything is being done to keep the children in your district safe. Second, you need to understand the procedures and protocols that are being practiced in your child’s school so that you can reiterate to you son/daughter the importance of taking “drills” seriously in school and even practicing or discussing the drills at home.
In order to understand the safety measures that are in place at your district school, utilize the following suggestions in order to engage in an appropriate conversation with a district administrator.
Call your building principal and ask for a ten-minute meeting to discuss the safety of your son/daughter inside the school. In the unlikely event that they will not meet with you, then contact the superintendent of schools. Start your meeting by explaining that you are not there to question the security and safety procedures that are in place at the school; rather, you are meeting to feel re-assured of the district’s commitment to student safety, and you want to be sure to reiterate to your child the importance of following these procedures in school.
If you aren’t sure, ask the administrator to explain how a visitor gains access to the school. This should include the opening of a locked entrance; sign in procedures; identification check; and possibly check-in at the main office.
Ask the administrator to explain what a lockdown is and what children should do if a lockdown is called. This is not confidential, and the principal should explain where students go inside a classroom.
Do police officers frequently patrol the buildings? Your school may have a school resource officer or security in the building; however, local law enforcement agents should periodically enter the school buildings at random times so that a police presence is perceived by the community and specifically, strangers.
How often are the outside doors checked during the day to see if they are locked/closed shut? Unfortunately, there are times when students or faculty members “prop” a door open in order to gain access back into the school building. The administrative team, school resource officers, and custodial staff should have a consistent schedule of making rounds and checking to make sure all access areas are secured.
How often do you practice safety drills? Many states have specific laws in consideration of fire and safety drills. It is important that your son/daughter tells you when these drills take place in school so that you can reiterate to them the importance of taking the practice drills seriously.
Are there security cameras throughout the school building and near the entrances? Cameras are important for the administration and police when tracking unwanted visitors and are also a deterrent for those looking to do wrongdoing in the school.
Can you tell me if the police department practices the drills with students and do they also do their own drills in the school? Many police and other law enforcement agencies will do active shooter drills in the schools when students and staff are not is session, and they may also be on campus to witness lockdown procedures and get students and staff familiar with their presence in the building.
Are you actively seeking grants or more funding to enhance the security we already have? There are grants available and many districts are utilizing already stressed budgets to enhance district security measures. The federal government also provides grants specific to security and safety to districts in conjunction with local law enforcement agencies nationwide.
Do substitute teachers know what to do if a lockdown is called? Substitute plans should include procedures for lockdown and fire drills.
Who is in charge when you leave the building? Does the building have a vice principal or a teacher in charge? It is important to know that the faculty and staff are aware of who is in charge should an emergency situation arise.
These several questions will help you begin a dialogue with your child’s building administrator and help you discuss school safety with your son/daughter at home. The most important ingredient when growing a successful, high-performing school district is student safety. Everything else is secondary when discussing life’s most important commodity – your child.
Richard D. Tomko, Ph.D. Dr. Tomko has spent the past 19 years as a school administrator and is currently a superintendent of schools in a K-12 public school district in N.J. and adjunct professor of graduate educational leadership at Manhattan College. He earned his Ph.D. in Educational Leadership, Management, and Policy and a Master of Arts in Educational Administration from Seton Hall University. Dr. Tomko has also earned a Graduate Certificate in Community and Economic Development from The Pennsylvania State University, a Certificate in Leadership for his professional studies at Harvard University, and is presently pursuing a Master of Jurisprudence (M.J.) Degree in Children's Law and Policy from Loyola University of Chicago School of Law. He is a managing partner of Tomko, Tomko, and Associates, an educational and community consulting firm based in Sparta and coaches several sports. He resides in Sparta with his wife, Jaimie and four children who attend the Sparta public school system.
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