How Safe Are Our Schools?

At the time, I thought that I would always remember April 20, 1999, as the day then-First Lady Hillary Clinton visited the school district in which I was working.

I was one of the entourage who escorted her and her staff around the Village School in Syosset, L.I.

The school was packed with media because there were rumors Mrs. Clinton would soon announce she was running for the U.S. Senate from New York. When I got home from work, I settled in to watch what I expected would be wall-to-wall coverage of the visit.

Columbine Memorial, Littleton, Colorado: Photo by David Keyzer (CC)

But it was quickly pre-empted by the horrific news from Littleton, Colorado — the massacre of 12 students and one teacher by two student gunmen before they killed themselves at Columbine High School.

Ever since that day, our notions of school safety have changed. So this week when police sought four men in connection with a home invasion robbery in Bellmore, L.I., they ordered a lockdown of 27 schools in Bellmore, Merrick, Wantagh and Levittown as they pursued the men through residential neighborhoods. The lockdowns went on for hours before the suspects were all apprehended, but not before there was a shootout in front of the Lakeside Elementary School in Merrick.

Anxious parents were advised not to come to the schools and were assured that their children were safe. Although the specter of lockdowns evokes memories of Columbine and subsequent school shootings, it’s important to remember that schools are now required to have comprehensive safety plans.

I remember chairing a large Project SAVE Committee in 2000 when New York State first required districts to have very specific safety plans, which must be tweaked and improved each year. This week when the lockdowns occurred on Long Island’s South Shore, the affected districts used their Websites and automated phone messages to inform parents — tools that were not widely used or available 11 years ago.  

But how do you know about your child’s safety? Here are some questions you can ask:

  • How does your school communicate with parents in case of a lockdown or safety situation?
  • Does your school conduct lockdown drills with its staff? (There is mixed opinion on whether students should participate because it might frighten them.) Is all staff familiar with safety plans, and what to do if there is a threat to safety?
  • Do your district and school administrators have ongoing contact with their local police and fire departments?  
  • Do parents have access to reports that include information about the number of violent or other unsafe incidents at the school?
  • Does your school have ways to prevent as well as to respond to crises?
  • Are students taught conflict resolution skills?
  • How is school safety promoted in your school?
  • Are school facilities safe and free of hazards? 
  • Does your school or district have a Safety Committee?
  • Does your child know how to protect his or her personal safety and what to do if he or she is threatened?

It really does “take a village” – to borrow a line from Hillary Clinton — to ensure that our children are safe. Although schools are doing a much better job than they used to, there is always room for improvement. Board of education members, school and district administrators, teachers, staff, students and parents must always be vigilant and act as partners with one another to protect our students and schools. 

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