School Safety Essentials

The Essential Components of School Safety

There is a great deal of information in the news and in professional publications about school safety. This information is designed to guide us toward taking effective steps to increase our own district’s level of safety and provide some peace of mind. Through experience, research, and study, I developed a system called SafeAware, which significantly improves school safety. I have composed this report to outline the most current solid practices with brevity and clarity, in order to simplify your work as a school leader.

School Safety – Where should we start?

School safety starts with an awareness of our everyday actions. To create a safer school environment, we must work to expand the awareness of students, staff members, parents, and community members about the many ways in which we can make our schools safer on a daily basis.

School Climate

Best practice dictates the teaching, modeling and rewarding of inclusive, caring, and compassionate behavior while correcting harmful behavior. As we strive to help all students experience a sense of belonging within our school community, we need to be mindful of students’ perception of our school climate. It is their perception that will propel their actions. When students perceive that specific groups or individuals are granted special handling and privilege, a sense of unfairness and bitterness toward individuals and the school is fostered. We know that a number of school shooters have harbored such grievances against a world or school community that they perceived as unfair and unwelcoming to them.

We need to remember that when we listen to our students, they will be more likely to come to us when they need help or are concerned about others. Often, we inadvertently train students that it is not safe or effective to tell an adult when something is wrong or when they are concerned about someone’s behavior. With good intentions and the desire to help our students become self-sufficient and capable of navigating relationships, we instruct them to work it out on their own. Perhaps, we remind them to practice the skills they’ve learned through a prevention curriculum like Steps to Respect or Second Step. Or, we believe their conflict is minor and that they will be best served by learning to ignore it.

Unfortunately, when we don’t listen and act on concerns, students learn not to tell us, and more importantly, not to trust us. When we later struggle to motivate students to break the code of silence in middle or high school, we may find it difficult to undo the learning that took place earlier when telling kids that their reports constituted tattling or that they needed to work things out on their own. The best way to combat this is to train your staff to listen and follow through on all student concerns, starting with pre-K and continuing through high school. This doesn’t always necessitate action; sometimes just listening and brainstorming solutions with a child are all that’s needed.

Student perception of school climate also affects whether students report concerns or threats to adults. According to the 2008 bystander study commissioned by the U. S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education (Pollack, W. S., Modzeleski, W. & Rooney, G.), when students perceived that their concerns would not be taken seriously or that they would get in trouble if they told an adult, they failed to report events as serious as knowledge that a peer had brought a weapon onto school property.

 Physical Safety

Increasing awareness regarding the physical safety of our buildings is imperative. This begins with keeping entrances locked during the school day and requiring all staff members to wear ID badges. It also includes asking that parents and visitors sign in at the office when they arrive on campus and sign students out when they leave the building. This allows us to keep track of who is in our buildings and enables us to do a better job of keeping all children safe.

While it may not always be comfortable, we don’t need to fear approaching visitors as a possible confrontation. Rather, it’s an opportunity to educate them about the ways in which we are all working together to ensure everyone’s safety. We can train our staff members to say something along the lines of, ”Hi! I want to let you know about our new safety policy. All visitors need to sign in at the office and get a visitor badge, even if it’s just for a quick trip to drop off a lunch,” or “Hi! Can I help you find what you’re looking for? Were you able to sign in at the front office when you arrived? You might not know about our new sign-in policy. We’re asking all visitors to sign in at the office and pick up a visitor badge. It helps us keep everyone in our building safe.”

While we are on the subject of locked entrances, you can delay would-be intruders with the addition of shatterproof film on entrance windows and doors. Investigators have determined that this safety enhancement will delay and possibly deter an attacker from entering the building. At the very least, it will buy some time to react and respond to the situation.

The use of site vulnerability assessments is essential to establish a baseline of your school buildings’ physical safety. Following an established checklist or template allows you to evaluate the safety of components that may have escaped your attention in the past. There are a number of readily available tools for this purpose. The next step, of course, is to repair or correct any items that reduce optimal levels of safety. Grant funding opportunities allocated specifically for this purpose can be located by visiting your state department of education, and

Communications systems are vital to allow staff, emergency responders, students, and parents to remain in contact during an emergency. There are a number of such systems on the market; many designed to use existing cell phones as both notification systems and “panic” alerts to summon assistance.

The majority of school districts now employ video surveillance systems. Your site assessment should help you tweak the location of cameras, as you may discover dark or poorly lit hallways where students congregate or other areas that warrant an increased focus. You will also want to place cameras in external areas that could be breached by a potential intruder, both during and after school hours. Finally, footage needs to be monitored on a regular basis to be used effectively for prevention. Many districts rely on it solely as a way to substantiate a theft, drug-related incident, or physical altercation. When we fail to monitor it regularly, we are missing an opportunity to prevent hazards before they affect those in our care.

Locked classrooms have been a focus since the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December of 2012. School safety professionals now recommend that classroom doors be lockable from the inside so teachers do not have to enter the hallway to secure them. It is also recommended that teachers either leave doors locked while in the classroom or be trained to lock them quickly. A recent analysis of the Sandy Hook Shooting Summary Report, appearing in Campus Safety (Dorn, M. Dorn, C., Satterly, S., Shepherd, S. & Nguyen, P., 2013) states that, “As in the vast majority of K-12 school shootings in the United States, not a single student or staff member was killed behind a locked interior door.”

The effectiveness of even the best safety strategies and products is limited without staff training. It is imperative that your staff be trained to identify hazards, properly utilize safety enhancements, and respond in the way you deem most suitable for your district or building.

Crisis Response Plans

A school district’s Safety/Crisis Response Plan should include not only detailed protocols for responding to myriad incidents ranging from a chemistry lab accident to an intruder, it should include a description of preventive services, recovery procedures, and contact information for all staff and emergency responders. It must be reviewed and updated annually and staff should receive training on response protocols whether they are permanent or substitute staff members.

While it is not necessary to create a plan from the ground up when there are many good plans available, it is necessary to personalize it and even rewrite sections to meet your specific needs. Not only does this process make the plan truly yours, it educates those staff members who develop the plan about the various ways of doing things. Not all will be a good fit for your district. It is enlightening to review a number of different plans and find those that resonate with your district’s philosophy and capabilities. A fill-in-the-blank approach is not the best, here. I see this often, and it prevents school staff from being as knowledgeable and invested in the plan as they would be if they had engaged in additional research and consideration. Input from your local emergency responders should be considered, as well.

Staff members must have their own flipcharts containing emergency incident-specific response protocols. They should be provided at the close of a staff presentation that underscores the importance of each individual learning and practicing his or her unique role in school safety. Staff should be given time to review the plans and receive training in response protocols. In addition, they should have an opportunity for questions at follow-up meetings in their respective buildings. Benefits of training staff members in your preferred response protocols are consistency in information and procedures, reduction of fear and uncertainty among staff and consequently, among students, staff buy-in and enhanced cooperation with safety drills.


Safety drills must be practiced on a regular basis. It is critical to think through ahead of time how we will respond in a variety of situations. You may want to start by walking through a variety of emergencies during tabletop exercises with key staff and emergency responders. From here you can move to implementation of full-school drills. The type of drills should be rotated and include fire, chemical spill, evacuation, reverse evacuation, lockdown and any other type of drill pertinent to your specific location (flood, tornado, etc.).

Practicing drills involves conditioning ourselves to behave in a specific way even when our physiology and cognitive capacity are compromised. When under duress, our fine motor skills deteriorate, followed by our complex motor skills and cognitive processing ability. We begin to perceive things more narrowly and lose some of our problem-solving skills. Finally, when our heart rate reaches 220 beats per minute, irrational behavior begins to occur. This is what has happened when we hear of someone doing something that we cannot understand, or even imagine, during an emergency.

Drills are an exercise in conditioning our brains and bodies. They employ a form of cognitive conditioning and training through muscle memory. Because of this, it’s critical that we perform them just as we would respond in a real emergency. That means taking flip charts and emergency go kits when exiting the building or moving into a lockdown space.

Warning Signs

It is critical that all staff members receive training in the observable warning signs of suicide and violence, and that our schools have a process for communicating and investigating concerns.

Without this system-wide communication in place, each potential red flag appears to be an isolated incident. As a result, we may not give the person of concern or the potential threat the attention it warrants. When we communicate, a picture begins to emerge that will cause us to either feel either less concern or more concern about an individual and his/her movement toward violence.

I always recommend that schools designate key personnel to serve on a threat assessment team. The team should be made up of one or two building administrators, a school psychologist, social worker, counselor, school resource officer, and perhaps a school nurse. These individuals should be trained together in the concepts, procedures and tools used to conduct threat assessments.

When concerns about an individual deem it necessary to convene the team and assess the risk of violence, your team will be asked to judge whether facts and observations indicate a risk of violence. Threat assessment is a solid practice for guiding an assessment of behaviors that could escalate to violence. While it is not yet a required practice in all schools, it is required for K-12 public schools in the state of Virginia and for public colleges and universities in Virginia, Illinois and Connecticut.

Active Shooter Response

Over the past several years, schools have begun to adopt and practice active shooter responses. There is some conflicting opinion out there about which response protocol is best – Lockdown; Run, Hide, Fight; Run Out, Hide Out, Take Out; A.L.I.C.E.

Here is the most current thinking on the subject: Intervening with armed intruders has resulted in both averted deaths and what are considered preventable deaths. There have been incidents where intervention has clearly saved lives. Alternatively, it has been established that in some incidents, intervening accelerated events and resulted in deaths that may not otherwise have occurred. Misreading the situation or misapplying intervention techniques during an active shooting can cause rather than prevent deaths. (Dorn & Satterly, 2012).

Trained law enforcement officers have also been shot when intervening with an active shooter. The FBI Active Shooter Report (2014) revealed that in 21 of 45 incidents where law enforcement was forced to engage the shooter to end the threat, 9 officers were killed and 28 were wounded. If trained officers are at risk in these situations, and they most certainly are, then untrained or minimally trained staff and students stand to be at much higher risk when intervening with an active shooter.

Most safety experts do agree that if staff and students have the ability to exit safely, they should do so. If they are held in a space with an active shooter and there is no other alternative, they must have permission to do what is needed to increase their chances of survival. But, intervening directly with a person holding any type of weapon should not be the first line of defense. It should be the last.

The research on this topic is ongoing and will continue to evolve just as all safety practices do. Our strategies must be reviewed and updated as we continue to learn more effective safety practices. Ultimately, true school safety happens when we stay informed and work together–school staff, emergency responders, parents, and students – to create and promote a safer community.

I hope you have found this information useful. If you have any questions or would like to know more about applying any of the concepts in this report to your school district, please contact me at [email protected].

About Suzanne Sibole: As the founder of Youth Risk Prevention Specialists and creator of the SafeAware School Safety System, I partner with schools to significantly improve all facets of safety.

With over 25 years of school experience, I provide training for staff, parents and students on topics ranging from everyday school safety to warning signs and management strategies for threats of suicide and violence. I work with staff until they are confident they know exactly what to do to ensure a safer school.


Blair, J. Pete, and Schweit, Katherine W. (2014). A Study of Active Shooter Incidents, 2000 – 2013. Texas State University and Federal Bureau of Investigation, U.S. Department of Justice, Washington D.C. 2014.

Dorn, Michael S., Dorn, Chris, Satterly, Steve, Shepherd, Sonayia & Nguyen, Phuong (2013). 7 Lessons Learned from Sandy Hook, Campus Safety Magazine.

Dorn, Michael S. and Satterly, Stephen Jr. (2012). Safe Havens International. Fight, Flight or Lockdown–Teaching Students and Staff to Attack Active Shooters could Result in Decreased Casualties or Needless Deaths.

Newman, Katherine S., Fox, Cybelle, Harding, David J., Mehta, Jal & Roth, Wendy (2004). RampageThe Social Roots of School Shootings. New York: Basic Books

Pollack, William S., Modzeleski, William & Rooney, Georgeann (2008). Prior Knowledge of Potential SchoolBased Violence: Information Students Learn May Prevent a Targeted Attack, U. S. Secret Service and the U.S. Department of Education, Washington D.C.

Ripley, Amanda (2008). The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes – and Why. New York: Crown Publishers.