In August, one safety expert shared with District Administration his predictions on the 2022-23 school year surrounding school safety, which he anticipated would be “challenging.” Now that schools are in their final weeks of the semester, we revisit this conversation for a chance to understand how K12 schools have fared this year and look ahead to what’s to come.
Dr. Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, says this school year is, “unfortunately,” exactly what he anticipated. Even further, he says there are no signs of these threats slowing down anytime soon.
“The school year lived up to the expectation with heightened verbal and physical aggression, endless bomb and shooting swatting threats, school shootings and other challenges,” he says. “Regrettably, there are no indications of it letting up as school leaders and their teams head into the summer in preparation for opening the next school year in just a few months.”
These threats were a reality for many school districts across the country, including Portsmouth City Schools in Ohio. Josh Morris, the district’s assistant superintendent, says his district faced some of the exact same issues outlined by Trump.
“Overall, this year has been a challenging year,” Morris says. “We have faced many challenges that districts across the country have faced from increased student misbehavior, virtual, social media threats, increased staff absenteeism and a shortage of substitute teachers.”
But among all of these pressures, he says swatting hoaxes, a troubling trend that continues to make headlines, was the most egregious threat to his district.
“The most prominent safety threats we had to address were direct and indirect threats via social media,” he says. “Predominantly, the threats surface through the app Snapchat. We had approximately three threats of this manner this school year.”
As a result, there was widespread fear and uncertainty among Portsmouth students, staff and families, according to Morris. He says that the threats usually came as students arrived for school that day—”a very challenging time to occur,” he adds—which led to substantial losses in instructional time, which sometimes carried over into the next day.
“During the initial time of the threat, our building administration, law enforcement and district administrators worked to assess the threat, make important educational and safety decisions based on the information at hand, and communicate to our stakeholders as law enforcement works to find the source of the threat.”
The district also worked closely with its students during the first and second threat events in an effort to understand if these concerns were known ahead of time. To Morris’ surprise, some students knew the threats were coming but were afraid to report them to staff members for fear of getting others in trouble.
“With the lack of students willing to report safety concerns and not fully understanding the risks of not reporting threats, the district safety team had a brainstorming session and decided to immediately use resources from the ‘Sandy Hook Promise’ and started a district-wide ‘see something, say something’ campaign for an entire week,” he says, which they plan to incorporate next school year and beyond.
“This was highly successful as students came forward, after the campaign, reporting potential safety risks,” he says. “Those reported situations were able to be proactively assessed and addressed accordingly.”
He also says the district has been allocating federal, state and local dollars toward security, a necessary component of school safety that Trump cautions leaders to find balance with.
“We are concerned that many schools are using federal pandemic relief money and state grants on weapons detection systems, metal detectors, panic buttons and other security products to help them solve a political problem—a school community relations problem—as much as, if not more so than, an actual school safety problem,” Trump says.
Districts must carefully design their security budgets to avoid what Trump calls “security theater,” the process of investing too heavily into physical security to make a school environment seem safer than it really is.
“I predict many of these expenditures will end up in school districts dropping leases and refusing to incorporate dollars from their district operating budgets to sustain, repair and replace these items once the grant funding goes dry,” he says.
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Among Portsmouth leadership, Morris says the district has placed an increased focus on school safety as they’ve “spent much time and money to put in place many processes, procedures, strategies and physical safety measures,” he explains. As for the 2023-24 school year, they’ve already begun preparations to ensure the safety of their students and staff, including establishing threat assessment teams and protocols in each school building, training every staff member on the threat assessment process, practicing safety protocol to identify strengths and weaknesses and strengthening partnerships with their local agencies that can support their district, among other steps.
These preparations are prime examples of what Trump expects to see happening in school districts around the nation this summer. But for those unsure where to begin, he advises leaders to develop strategies focused on people, rather than simply targeting school “hardening” tactics.
“As a civil litigation expert witness on some of the nation’s highest-profile school shootings, while the facts and merits of each case vary, a common thread is that they involve allegations of failures of human factors—people, policies, procedures, plans and communications—not alleged failures of security products and technology,” he explains.
“When security works, it is because of the people. When security fails, it is because of the people. School leaders must spend more time on the people side of school safety starting with dedicating more time to training their staff—and that means all staff—including support personnel such as those working in the front office, cafeterias, custodial and maintenance staff and bus drivers.”
However, he says we’ll see district leadership teams return to administrative retreats and professional development days carving little time for safety training and emergency preparedness. But, he notes an uptick in inquiries from school boards, superintendents and independent school heads “seeking independent professional evaluations of their security and emergency preparedness.”
“School leaders need to incorporate periodic evaluations of their school security and emergency preparedness into their operating budgets in the same way they do external curriculum audits and other facility audits.”