Safe Schools: 5 ways to handle civil disturbances on campus

As students become more involved in social and political issues, the potential for incidents rises
By: | October 18, 2020
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Allowing students to have a voice when it comes to social and political causes is important, but districts should have strategies in place for potential unrest on their campuses. They also must be wary of other potential emergencies. Civil disturbances can happen in an instant. So how can schools be better prepared for them?

That question was posed to two experts – Guy Grace of the Partner Alliance for Safer Schools (PASS) and Paul Timm of Facility Engineering Associates – during a virtual session last week hosted by security solutions provider Allegion. They say it is important for staff, faculty and even students to be vigilant and proactive.

Students, buoyed by newsbytes and soundbytes and caught in the throes of political fights, have been especially passionate and vocal in recent years in backing certain causes. Done peacefully it has its purpose. But districts must make sure it doesn’t cross a line.

“We are in a day of civil disturbances and whether you’re saying, ‘protests, I’m all for it’, or ‘I can’t stand with it’, the reality is it’s happening,” says Grace, chairman of the PASS advisory committee. “And it’s happening because we have issues with the Supreme Court. We have issues with Black Lives Matter. We have issues with all kinds of societal things and an election coming up. Students are way more involved than we ever were.”

The notion that any of these hot-button topics or planned events could pose a risk to the safety at schools should be a consideration, says Grace. Timm also notes that the disturbances can manifest negatively in other areas, such as academic achievement and attendance of students.

“There have been studies done especially over the last 10 years that have shown that these incidents are quite disruptive to the student learning processes,” he says. “The key is to make sure that our students are there in our schools at that time where they should be. In talking to other schools across the country right now, the attendance of our staff, of our students is, can be a challenge.”

Five strategies for quelling disturbances

Grace offered up several forward-thinking solutions that can help schools avoid potential breaches in security and safety:

  1. Include procedures for potential events like sit-ins, walkouts and protests in your emergency planning. (Referencing the Parkland school shooting back in 2018) Many schools said wait a minute, we don’t want to have a walkout, but we do want to have something productive. And so let’s offer the students something in between. Let’s just open up the auditorium. Students can go into the auditorium, get their minutes and walk out of class. But we’ll invite a local or state legislator so the student voice can be heard. And I love being creative like that. I love involving students to say, what might be most productive here? Now, of course, there’s a certain percentage that will never be interested in dialogue. But the lion’s share will be interested.
  2. Collaborate with local authorities. They might know about information that we’re not aware of. They also might know about resources. We want to stay in immediate communication with them at all times should some kind of disturbance surface.
  3. Preparing teachers and students in the community to see something, say something. If you’ve never engaged in see something, say something, now is the time. You can go to the Department of Homeland Security website, and they have all kinds of materials, posters, banners, social media spots, that you can take advantage of if you’re a school. Whatever we can do to keep the information coming in puts us in a much better position than we would be otherwise.
  4. Educate teachers and students on what to do in the event of a civil disturbance. If it comes up fast, we need to know that maybe we’re going to close the blinds on our windows, or maybe we’re going to make sure that the doors are secured. Maybe we know that there is an offsite location that we will keep in mind. Whatever it is, it’s good to have that conversation ahead of time. There’s only two times we know if our emergency procedures work. One of those is during the actual emergency, and that would be a bad time to find out if they’re not working. So, practice and dialogue ahead of time.
  5. Develop notification procedures for all stakeholders. It’s not just that we need to get a hold of our emergency responders. But the district office might not even be close to where we are. In fact, it might be in a different city. How will we notify them? How will we notify the parents? If you’re not including students in your mass notification system, now’s the time to do it with. Students are mobile. Students have better iPhones than you have. And of course, teachers.

Chris Burt is a reporter and editor for District Administration. He can be reached at