School Climate and School Safety: A Delicate Balancing Act

Principal Communicator e-Newsletter
Historic Start Date: 
November 2008

Staying vigilant about school safety while maintaining an environment of openness and hospitality is not easy. But with clear communication, school officials can create safe and welcoming school environments.

Train A Friendly and Observant Staff

According to school security expert Kenneth Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services consulting firm, the first and best line of defense is a well trained, highly alert school staff and student body. Friendly, observant staff notice new faces on campus immediately and approach them to offer assistance. This vital security measure is also crucial in creating a welcoming impression. Key messages in newsletters, interviews, and meetings should stress the high priority that an observant staff plays in maintaining school security.

Get Serious About Safety

Parent and media perceptions about school safety are vital. Trump notes that the loss of a school’s reputation for lack of preparedness can be more costly than legal liability. “Parents, the media, and potentially a court want answers to two questions: What reasonable measures were in place to reduce the risks of crime and violence, and how well prepared are school officials to prevent incidents that cannot be prevented?” says Trump. And while reasonable security and preparedness measures do not need to be Draconian, Trump warns that failing to take reasonable steps is unacceptable from both a liability and a school-community relations perspective.

Implement Physical Safety Measures

Most security experts recommend these security basics:
* Reduce the number of open doors
* Have a working communications systems in place
* Keep trees and shrubs trimmed to promote natural visibility
* Build security measures into the design of new and remodeled schools

These measures can also improve your hospitality quotient and your curb appeal. By reducing the number of open doors, schools can ensure that all visitors are properly greeted. And efforts to beautify your campus with a carefully tended landscape can also improve school security. Some stakeholders may think school security depends on physical measures such as metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and security officers.

These are important considerations, but they shouldn’t be the sole focus of school safety efforts. “Prisons have metal detectors, prisoner and visitor searches, and the most restrictive, punitive environments,” notes Trump. “(Yet) prisons still experience incidents of drugs, assaults, weapons, gangs, and even murder. When security equipment is used in schools, it must be viewed as a supplement to, but not a substitute for, a more comprehensive school safety program.” While metal detectors and surveillance cameras may be part of your schools’ security efforts, their use does not mean that your schools can’t be welcoming. Adequate lighting, also an important security element, can brighten entranceways. Attractive bulletin boards can celebrate student achievement, and signs can deliver messages of hospitality.

Beware Overreactions

Trump advises caution in avoiding rash reactions, such as hastily installing metal detectors, cameras, or other physical security measures in response to parental or media pressures following a high-profile incident or crisis. “The key to assessing school security and emergency preparedness is to do so before a crisis incident so schools leaders have a strategic safety plan in place that can be looked to without resorting to knee-jerk reactions,” Trump counsels.

Remember, school communities need to be aware and prepared, but not scared. Use communication to inform and educate, and choose language to minimize fear and anxiety.

Sidebar Tips for Principals: November PRC

Use positive language when communicating about school safety:
* Include information about visitor procedures in school newsletters, handbooks, and on the school’s web site. Be sure to use a friendly tone. Avoid fearful phrases like “heightened security” or orders like “must report.” Instead, say “Help us maintain school safety by checking in at the front office!”
* Post welcome messages on informational campus signs. Use invitational language to direct visitors to the appropriate location to sign-in and receive their visitors’ identification.
* Combine elements of customer service training with regular school security exercises and preparation to create a win-win for everyone. Include how to welcome and approach visitors, how to deal with difficult people, and how to de-escalate situations as well as how to call for help.

By -- Carol Mowen, APR, NSPRA Senior Associate