District leaders share strategies for keeping schools safe despite staff shortages

Pajaro Valley USD is teaming mental health counselors with SROs to support students.
By: | December 22, 2021
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At the same time that unprecedented numbers of students are struggling with mental health, administrators are grappling with sharp increases in disruptive behavior. Add widespread K-12 staff shortages to that, and it’s yet another complicated dilemma that school leaders have been saddled with during the COVID pandemic.

Pajaro Valley Unified School District in California is now testing an innovative solution that may be a model for other administrators as they work to solve this multi-pronged problem. In two of its high schools, the district has paired a mental health clinician with a school resource officer to proactively build relationships with students and respond to behavioral incidents, Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez says.

As administrators were planning to reopen Pajaro Valley USD’s schools this year after 18 months of remote instruction, they recognized research that has found that SROs throughout K-12 have had a disparate impact on students of color and vulnerable populations. “We didn’t want to just bring back SROs,” Rodriguez says. “We wanted to figure out how to ensure that the context and culture in which we placed SROs would negate some of that national research.”

For more than six weeks now, a mental health clinician, who is a district employee, and an SRO from the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office have been traversing the halls of Aptos High School. Another pair has just started work at Watsonville High School. The combination of their areas of expertise has been especially effective when behavioral incidents occur but laws are not violated. “We’re finding that we’re able to, in many cases, get to the root of an issue,” Rodriguez says.

Teachers can also bring the clinician-SRO teams into classrooms to deliver lessons as Pajaro Valley USD continues its “restorative start,” a social-emotional learning initiative design, in part, to make the 2021-22 school year safer.

The multi-phased lessons that comprise the initiative were created by a district behaviorist and a team of counselors, and cover topics such as identity and self-belonging. “It’s all about relationships and interactions,” Rodriguez says. “We want our SROs and mental health clinicians to be visible and engaging students when the students are doing well so they’re seen as a resource.”

How to expand school supervision

To contend with staff shortages, administrators may be tempted to buy hardware and technology to tighten school security. While some products are highly effective, school leaders should also determine if their staff has the ability to maximize the use of those tools, says Michael Dorn,  a school safety expert and executive director of Safe Havens International.

For example, the research remains inconclusive on whether active-shooter drills do more harm than good and few schools or districts have the staff to monitor a bank of metal detectors “to the extent that an average 12-year-old cannot beat it and get a gun in the building on the first try,” Dorn says.

He recommends administrators create or recommit to multi-disciplinary threat assessment teams comprising administrators, mental health staff and law enforcement. This allows schools to spot the difference between students who are in emotional distress but pose no threat and those who truly represent a danger to the community. This process better assures both types of students get the support they need, considering that suicide is a bigger threat to students than is a mass shooting event.

“A proper approach to this reduces expulsions, suspensions and improves academic performance,” he says.

One of the most effective school safety measures is supervision, which may not be good news for administrators grappling with staffing constraints. Behavioral incidents declined earlier in the pandemic when fewer students were in the building and there were more teachers and other staff in hallways checking on social distancing and mask compliance, Dorn says.

This is one place where technology can be a force multiplier. New, camera technology powered by video analytics can detect students or others loitering in trouble spots such as stairways or bathrooms, and alert staff automatically.

Dorn also recommends electronic hall pass systems that many schools have installed to control foot traffic during COVID. This can also help administrators identify teachers who may be giving out too many hall passes.

Ultimately, administrators should resist public pressure to make quick fixes that may be highly visible—such as metal detectors—but will not boost security in the long term. When investing in equipment, they should also look for products with proven track records, rather than serving as a “guinea pig” for new technology. Failures in these types of investments can damage an administration’s financial credibility and make it harder to pass bond measures for other spending initiatives.

“When schools look at how to do things with less personnel, that stuff takes time to think through and do right,” Dorn says. “Resist the temptation to make major investments that you may get in place quicker but that you’ll be stuck with for 10 years.”

Don’t rely on remote learning

Preparation, of course, is also crucial. One of the best ways to get your whole team—and community—ready for emergencies is through table-top exercises, says Kenneth S. Trump, president of  National School Safety and Security Services.

When conducting these exercises, it’s important to have a diversity of expertise, from administrators to law enforcement to facilities and food service staff, custodians and bus drivers. That ensures a variety of perspectives are represented and that all stakeholders are trained in responding to the fluid and ambiguous nature of emergencies, Trump says. “You work through it as a team so when there is an incident,t it’s not the first time the team has made a group decision.”

Trump is concerned by the trend of administrators responding to safety incidents—such as online threats and on-campus fights—by closing buildings and shifting to remote learning. Leaders need to have a plan in place to return to in-person learning with behavioral interventions, social-emotional supports and heightened security, he says.

“If we agree that remote learning is unhealthy socially, emotionally and academically and we agree that the uptick in violence and aggression is due to social-emotional stressors from remote learning,” he says, “then it doesn’t make sense to push kids back into remote learning to deal with the violence that’s stemming from kids being in remote learning.”