DA op-ed: School safety without breaking the bank

By: | May 6, 2019

Long time educator Eugene Butler, Jr., is a retired assistant superintendent (Tucson USD).

School safety concerns have dominated recent headlines and educational conferences. However, most of the discussions, suggestions and recommendations revolve around gun control, gang-related issues, bullying, and additional school safety officers.

What has slipped through the cracks during many school board meetings is that improving school safety does not require districts and schools to spend enormous sums to provide a safer and more orderly learning environment. On the other hand, it does demand that all stakeholders are committed to and buy into a collaborative approach to a structured learning community.

Based on peer-reviewed literature, anecdotal evidence and 26 years of empirical experiences as an educator ranging from classroom teacher to assistant superintendent for student support services (including oversight and supervision for a school district’s safety officers), I believe the following tips will assist in creating a safer environment that is conducive to teaching and learning.

Access granted

An optimal safety design would be to have a remote-camera access (i.e., buzz-in) system installed where every visitor, including the superintendent of schools, must be buzzed into the school. If the district is not financially capable of installing the aforementioned system at each school perhaps private sector funding through partnerships can be secured in compliance with Board policy or a bond initiative may be an option.

A cheaper alternative is assigning a monitor to the front of each school who is responsible for signing each and every visitor in and out of the building through the only established entry point. Upon entering the learning center, all visitors must report directly to the main office (regardless of title or standing in the community) to receive a visitor’s pass.

Meet and greet

Every teacher must stand at their classroom door, every single period during the passing of classes. Administrators and counselors must also be visible in the halls and assisting with moving students from class to class during the allocated time for passing. I used to share in faculty and principals’ meetings that we have to be like Pavlov’s Dogs every time the bell rings.

Train the entire faculty and staff on how to appropriately, but respectfully greet and stop every visitor in the hallway. It is imperative that all non-school site employees are addressed in the hallways and escorted by security back to the main office if there is not a legitimate reason for being in the halls (i.e., parent conference, IEP meetings, written approved parent-classroom observation, etc.). In addition to ensuring that the visitor(s) report directly to the authorized location, it also allows staff time to build rapport with the students’ parents/guardians.

During the first week of school, teachers must contact the parent or guardian of EVERY student on their respective student roll. The purpose of this protocol is twofold. First, contacting the students’ parents/guardians during the first week of school sends a message that you as an educator cares about the well-being of their child. This call is simply a brief three to five minute call and then on to the next parent. Secondly, the initial conversation with the parent is positive. So, if the pupil is off-tasks or not engaged in the future; the first call to the parent is not a negative call.

Know the codes

Establish radio codes and unit numbers for essentials staff members. Each member of the administrative team should be assigned a unit number designating their place in the command chain. For example, the principal is unit 1, the assistant principal in unit 2 and so on down the line. Everyone, including counselors, librarians, cafeteria manager, head custodian, must be assigned a unit number.

Not only does this established protocol create a more professional environment, it improves communication, clearly identifies the responding parties and ensures clarity of the situation.

The radio codes provide concise transmission of the issue at hand. An altercation may be identified as a Code 10, for example, or a stranger near the school may be a Code 4. The nearest security monitor would say “Unit 8, I have a code 10 by room 207.” He or she just calmly communicated the situation and the need for assistance in breaking it up. Simultaneously, all other essential personnel become aware that there is a fight in the building and the location.

Using a code rather than stating there is a fight will prevent other students from rushing to Room 207, which could make the situation worse.

Build student-educator relationships

Positive teacher-student relationships are invaluable and the interpersonal relationship shared between an educator and student is an important component of teaching and learning. With that said, the more involved students are in receiving a quality education, the more likely they are not to engage in inappropriate conduct.

Even though I taught and served as an instructional leader in several working class communities, I was more concerned about angry parents inappropriately addressing my teachers and staff than a student bringing a weapon to school.

We were always conscious of that possibility, however, and building relationships with students and their parents was instrumental in diminishing many a potential violent act.
None of those environments were perfect and weapons were always on the radar. We remained cognizant, but we also chose to focus on ensuring positive outcomes for our kids.

Moreover, some of those bonds led to students openly or anonymously providing the administration and staff with tips pertaining to potential dangerous situations. Positive home-school relationships may also serve as a catalyst for improving affable student and educator partnerships. Therefore, classroom distractions and overall negative school-involved incidents may be mitigated by fostering authentic and organic bonds between internal and external stakeholders.

Long time educator Eugene Butler, Jr., is a retired assistant superintendent (Tucson USD).