What Every Parent Needs to Know About School Safety

What you need to know about school safety

When I taught in Tennessee, tornadoes were a frequent occurrence—so much so that many people were unfazed by the warnings. But not me! One day at dismissal, I could hear the tornado warnings from my classroom and my cell phone went crazy with alerts. I was pregnant, and I took those warnings seriously. I ushered my kids into the hallway and joined them in the “duck and cover” position. The other classes joined us, and we remained in tornado position for a good 45 minutes. While we weren’t comfortable, the children were calm as they had practiced following our safety plan several times.

Our children are growing up in a world where school safety drills are very routine. It’s important for them to practice doing things when conditions are not scary so they will feel calm and confident if the situation changes. School staff is trained in all of these drills, to help ensure procedures are followed and children will feel secure.

Depending on where you live, here are some of the different safety drills your child might tell you about.

Preparing for Safety

  • Fire Drills: These really haven’t changed much since you were in school. When a specific bell or alarm rings, students line up with their teacher and follow their emergency route out of the building. They go to a designated spot on or near the campus, and wait quietly while the teacher accounts for all students. When the teachers are given the “all clear,” students re-enter the building.
  • Tornado Drills: A school’s tornado plan designates a location for students to shelter in place during a tornado drill. This is usually the most interior room without windows. When a specific bell or alarm rings to signify a tornado drill, students move to their spot. They get down low with their head against the wall and use their arms to protect their head and neck.
  • Earthquake Drills: After receiving a notification in the form of a bell or alarm, students duck and cover underneath their desks or tables. They use their arms to protect their head and neck.
  • Lockdown Drills: In the event of police activity nearby, an intruder in the building, or, heaven forbid, an active shooter, schools utilize this type of procedure. A lockdown drill can be confusing, scary, or difficult for young children, and for the adults in the school, too. If a lockdown is ordered, teachers and staff will lock all doors and windows immediately, turning off all lights and closing any blinds or curtains. All students are instructed to stay low and away from the doors and windows. Part of the teacher’s job during a lockdown drill is to peek out of the classroom to see if any students are lingering in the hallway, and bring them into their classroom for the drill. Students and teachers must be silent in these lockdowns. When staff receives the “all clear” that the drill is over, the class returns to its normal routine.

Experiencing any of the situations addressed by these drills would be a scary and potentially dangerous experience for children. While we hope to never have to do these in real life, practice is essential so students can remain calm and safe should the unthinkable come to pass.

Create a Safety Plan

Teachers and school professionals by nature are the type of people who plan things out. But with school safety, it’s not that simple. Every event has a different set of circumstances and dynamics. I spoke to Lars Clemensen, a Superintendent of Schools in New York, about school safety in his district. Mr. Clemensen has proven to be an involved and proactive leader for his district on the issue of school safety, collaborating with local law enforcement and other school leaders in the state to discuss, learn, and plan.

“Schools are safest when we have a plan for preventing bad things from happening,” he said, “and in the unlikely event that something bad does happen, the schools are ready to respond.” Lars goes on to say that part of preventing bad things from happening is making sure that all kids are seen and that their needs are met. A school safety plan includes supporting kids who are struggling, staffing schools with school counselors and social workers, and implementing systems and programs that allow kids to be seen and heard.

Districts partner with law enforcement, fire departments, and other entities to ensure proper action and response during an event.

How to Talk to Your Child About School Safety

Some children internalize and worry about the real-life implications behind the drills. While awareness and preparedness is the goal, sometimes anxiety creeps in and the drills evoke reactions in young kids. If this is the case with your child at home, follow these tips:

  • Remind your child that school is a safe place and that they are safe. Reassure your child that the adults at the school have a plan.
  • Review the safety procedures together. Have your child teach you the plan they learned at school, and come up with a plan for home, too.
  • Go over the facts about the specific drill. If you live in an area prone to tornadoes, talk about the science behind the weather event and discuss the alert system that the weather experts use to help keep you safe. The key is to keep it age-appropriate and only share information that is necessary for them to know.
  • Share feelings about the topics. Allow your child to share their thoughts and feelings, and do the same for them in an age-appropriate way. Without overdoing it, let them know that you sometimes feel scared about things, but that having a plan helps you stay calm.

If you have concerns or questions, talk to your child’s school principal or teacher. It’s better to go straight to the source and ask questions rather than leave things to chance or go on social media to find answers.

By Caitlin Hardeman, former third through sixth grade teacher specializing in English Language Arts.

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