School safety is on everyone’s minds nowadays. It seems that every week, the news brings more horrific reports of another school shooting.
As parents, we can sometimes feel helpless. After all, we can’t singlehandedly change gun laws or improve mental health funding in the United States.
But there are plenty of simple action steps we can take to help ensure our own children’s safety at school. Not to mention their own (and OUR own!) peace of mind in these unsettling times.
Our school district recently held a parents’ information session on school safety tips and resources for parents. The information they provided, including tips from professionals at a local counseling center, was really well put-together. So much so, I wished all parents could have access to it.
So here you go:
School Safety Tips for Parents
1. Educate yourself on your district’s school safety efforts
If you’re active in your children’s school, through PTO/PTA or volunteering, you may already know some of this. For example, each week I volunteer at the girls’ school, where outer doors remain locked during school.
- To get into the building, I request access via a security camera/intercom system, then get buzzed into the office.
- The office already has my security clearances on file, but I still have to sign in using my driver’s license and a digital system that records the time I enter/leave the building.
- When the system scans my driver’s license each week, it prints out a bright-yellow sticker with my photo/name. This is my temporary badge to be in the building.
- And even with all that, I can only go to the classroom once the secretaries confirm that the teacher has me listed as an outside visitor for that day and time.
Action tips for parents:
If you don’t know where your district stands on school safety, ask these questions:
- Do all the buildings remain locked during school hours? Does your school monitor everyone who enters/leaves the building?
- Do the classrooms remain locked during the day? If not, can teachers instantly lock them, without keys?
- Do students practice intruder (lockdown/armed shooter) drills? How often?
- When was your district’s last security audit? (Our district’s last security audit was 2013; several parents at our meeting urged school officials to do another.)
- Does your district have security/safety resource officers? In each building? What about a school safety committee?
- What programs does your district have to promote students’ social/emotional health? Anti-bullying initiatives? School-wide positive behavior support initiatives? Academic and behavioral supports? “Table talks” with school counselors?1
- Does your school encourage students to be “responsible reporters“, in an effort to defuse potential school safety threats?
- Does your district or local police have a tipline where you/your students can anonymously report potential threats? If so, what is the number?
- Does your school use the ALICE protocol? (ALICE stands for Alert-Lockdown-Inform-Counter-Evacuate. This system is considered the leading civilian protocol for handling active shooter situations.)
2. Keep lines of communication open
Having the best possible school plans in place is a start, but another key puzzle piece is keeping lines of communication open
- between you and your kids;
- between you and your kids’ teachers/principal/counselors;
- and between your kids and their teachers/principal/counselors.
This is one reason I volunteer regularly at the girls’ school (and one reason I’ve chosen a line of work where I have the flexibility to set my own schedule). I know the teachers, the principal, and the counselor. They know me. And we’re in regular communication with each other.
Action tips for parents:
Even if you can’t be as “present” in your kids’ school, there are other things you can do to keep communication lines open:
- Get to know your kids’ teachers; attend parent-teacher sessions and school events.
- Encourage your kids to report concerns they have, or overhear from other kids, to you. “Responsible reporting” is crtitical in helping to keep everyone safe.
- Encourage your kids to share any concerns they have with their teachers, school counselors, and/or principal.
- If your kids report something to you, pass on the information to the principal and/or local police so they can investigate.
- USE YOUR INTUITION, and teach your kids to do the same. If something you hear or see seems “not quite right,” there’s a reason your gut is telling you that, and you shouldn’t ignore it.
- Talk to your kids, in age-appropriate ways, about their safety concerns. Make sure they know they can always talk to you.
- Find out the terminology your kids’ school uses, and mirror that messaging at home. For example, our elementary school regularly practices “intruder” drills, which they explain as “someone’s in the building who shouldn’t be here.” This is much easier for kids to process (without freaking out) than calling them “lockdown” or “active shooter” drills, even though that’s what they are.
- Discuss “intruder drills” with your kids in an age-appropriate way. Make sure they understand that, just like a fire drill, it’s important for everyone to follow the teacher’s instructions quickly and responsibly.
- Validate your child’s feelings, if they’re scared or worried. Reassure them that they’re safe by bringing it back to the local level. Ask them if they’ve ever had a fire, tornado, or anything else that they’ve ever drilled for at school; point out that intruder drills are the same thing.
Lots of little conversations are better than one big conversation. But if you’re having trouble broaching the subject, try taking a long drive with your kids and chatting in the car.
3. Mental Health and Safety at Home
In addition, there’s a lot parents can do to promote a healthy environment at home. This will help both you AND your kids stay on even keel during these challenging times.
I remember when the September 11th attacks happened. I was living thousands of miles away from my friends and family on the East Coast. In part because I felt as if I should be back East with them, I spent way too much time glued to the TV. After a few days, I realized a few things:
- I was becoming obsessed; and
- I was feeling traumatized from spending every spare waking moment watching the horrors unfold on TV, over and over again.
This is one reason I’m glad we don’t watch TV at home, nor do we have a cable or dish subscription. But if a television ban is too drastic, there are plenty of other ways you can model and promote mental health at home:
How to do mental health check-ins:
Kids follow the cues of the grownups around them. If you’re worried about your kids’ safety and security at school, your kids will pick up on this. So it’s important for us as parents to monitor our own feelings, and teach our kids to do the same.
Here are some quick, easy check-ins that parents can use to keep track of their own mental health, and teach to their kids:
- How are you sleeping? Much more (or much less) than usual?
- How are you eating? Much more (or much less) than usual?
- Are you acting out? (For parents, this can include verbal explosions; in your kids, also look for aggressive behavior like hitting and punching.)
- Are you staying home more than usual, afraid to leave the house, or avoiding your normal activities?
- Is your work performance suffering?
If your answers suggest that something’s amiss, it’s important to take action – and, as relevant, to teach your kids to do the same:
- Take care of yourself. You can’t be there for your kids if you’re struggling to keep it together.
- Avoid alcohol, drugs, and caffeine; these will only make things worse.
- Keep your normal routines; withdrawing from life won’t help, either.
- Don’t overdose on TV news, which (as I learned after 9/11) can lead to mental trauma.
- Take a break from social media, too. Focus on the facts, not the rumor mill. Block or unfriend people if their posts fuel your negative feelings.
- If these tips aren’t enough, don’t be afraid to get professional help.
More action tips for parents:
- Know your kids’ friends, whereabouts, and social media passwords.
- If it’s not too late, take the Wait Until 8th pledge, and promote this idea in your community.
- Make sure your kids aren’t overdosing on news indirectly, through your own news consumption.
- Monitor (and as needed, restrict) your kids’ internet and social media use, too. Delaying their access to smartphones will help keep them from spending too much time on social media, which correlates with an uptick in teenage depression rates. So will setting a positive example with your own internet access; for example, our family bans devices at mealtimes,
- Help your kids process what they’re feeling in age-appropriate ways. It’s okay to share some of your own concerns and fears with them, as long as the overall tone is reassuring, and you keep the conversation age-appropriate.
- DON’T have adult conversations on this topic in front of your children. Restrict such conversations to times and places where your children won’t overhear you, and get upset.
4. What NOT to do in challenging times
Finally, the school officials gave us some excellent tips for what to do if we get a security update about an incident at one of our local schools. We’ve been getting at least one such update a week from our school district lately, via the parents’ app on our smartphones. The increased national focus on issues of school safety has this topic high on everyone’s minds, and students have been super-on-top-of reporting potential threats to school officials. This has meant lots of “faculty holds” and similar non-emergency “security updates.”
It’s important to understand that, in our district at least, there is a difference between a “faculty hold” and a “lockdown.” Lockdowns are reserved for intruders and intruder drills. A faculty hold is similar in that students remain in their classrooms, but it’s used for, say, a medical emergency (when the hallways need to be clear so paramedics can respond quickly) and investigations (when school officials are looking into potential threats, and want to be able to interview students while protecting their privacy).
I admit, the first time we got an alert of a “faculty hold” – hours before the recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida unfolded – I freaked out a little bit, not knowing what it meant. Besides clarifying for us that “faculty holds” are VERY different than being under lockdown, even if they might look the same on some levels, district officials gave us some great tips for how to respond to a faculty hold alert, as parents:
- DON’T go to the school to pick up your student. Your student will be stuck in class, and you’ll be clogging access for paramedics if the hold is due to a medical emergency.
- DON’T call the school to find out what’s going on. The district will keep us up-to-date via the parent portal with the latest, most accurate information. Calling the school will tie up the phone lines (and school employees) when both are needed for more important matters.
- DON’T engage in rumors. Especially not on social media. It’s critical to verify information before sharing it. Spreading false information just makes things worse for everyone.
No, we can’t control every aspect of school safety for our children when they leave home and go to school each morning. But these tips can go a long way toward giving you some peace of mind, and making your family partners with school officials in ensuring a safe learning environment for all children.