Preparing Your School District for Big Investments in School Safety

As the pandemic raged through our schools (and in some cities is still dictating public safety measures), the scope and definition of “school safety” expanded dramatically to account for remote learning’s impact on mental health, mask mandates and testing measures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, and cybersecurity initiatives with a sudden spike in 1:1 technology needs.

With students back in the classroom, though, the COVID-era concerns compounded with the classic catalog of school safety challenges that have been front-of-mind for education professionals for years. While school shootings, school bullying, and school violence seemingly lessened during the height of school shutdowns, the problems educators and district professionals left within the four walls were the problems they returned to. November’s Oxford High School shooting was a reminder that school violence wasn’t a thing of the past, and that there was plenty of work to be done to create schools that were both proactive in creating positive and supportive learning environments, as well as reactive in assessing and mitigating threats as they occur.

“All the things that we had to deal with before COVID such as school shootings, active shooters, bullying, school violence, all those types of things are once again coming back, and they’re coming back in a way that we’ve really never seen before,” said Adam Coughran, nationally-recognized school safety expert and president of school safety training non-profit Safe Kids Inc.

And so, the conversation turns back to: what are the right solutions? Where should school district professionals and facilities managers place their resources and energy to meet the needs of the time?
 

Across the U.S., Billions in Funds Go Toward School Safety

One thing is clear: school districts have never had as much focused funding for school safety as they do today.

“This money is really designed to take a look at supporting schools and supporting districts in finally purchasing some of these initiatives, whether it would be physical, software, any of these types of products, in order to try to ready their school for the full return of students and to continue a safe learning environment,” Coughran said.

Available school safety funds today are coming from both the federal and state levers of governments. For example, from the federal level, school districts are preparing to receive and apply their final round of ESSER funds, the COVID-era Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund. These will go to a number of initiatives including professional services like counseling, instructional coaching and remediation, as well as projects like renewed infrastructure, technology for students, and COVID-related PPE.

Districts should remember, though, that a major portion of these dollars are also being siphoned off for more traditional school safety investments. The Mississippi Department of Education, for example, allocated nearly $14 million of their total $49 million ESSER funds across 135 opt-in districts for the specific purpose of buying new surveillance cameras for schools, virtual maps for emergency planning, and even an app to notify emergency responders in case of emergency. School districts across the US, like STSD and HSD in Pennsylvania, are following suit and raising discussion around how to put ESSER funds to work for school safety needs.

Even state legislatures are noticing – and adjusting – to these school safety needs accordingly. In Michigan, Governor Whitmer’s recent school aid budget proposal surpassed $66 million tapped specifically for school safety “to prevent mass violence through partnerships between schools, public safety, mental health professionals, and communities.”

Michigan isn’t alone. Maryland’s proposed bill would provide $20 million to the state’s Safe School Fund and Arkansas’ approved budget gives over $2 billion to K-12 public schools, of which some will be spent on school safety. So while states and school districts are getting ready to invest, it’s what they’re investing in and how they’re investing that will determine the impact of a new era of school safety funds.

 

How Can School Districts Make Best Use of New Funds?

 
As a former law enforcement officer, Adam Coughran knows all too well about the unavoidable reality kids are returning to. Through his organization’s active shooter curriculum, learning resources and all-staff professional development, Coughran has been working to build age-appropriate solutions for school safety that don’t shy away from the realities of today’s challenges while staying proactive and reactive in approach, all to renew trust in the safety of in-school learning.

How should a school district identify whether such a solution is worth their time and money, and how something like training curriculum complements investments into hardware like cameras or metal detectors?

“I think COVID and the pandemic have really brought to light a number of school safety initiatives that for a while may have either gone unnoticed or maybe unprioritized,” Coughran said.

Coughran advocates for two methods to. First, districts should invest in new, or at least updated technology, fencing, visitor management, or other physical aspects of security to make sure the basics are working properly and providing useful support.

“It could very well be upgrading gates with new crash bar technology or other types of mechanical locking mechanisms, so that way it’s hard ingress and easy egress. So if students have to get out, or teachers have to get out of a recess field or play field, a sports field, quickly, they’re not fumbling for keys and trying to put it into an old padlock that maybe they’ve purchased years ago,” he said.

Second, Coughran pulls from his own experience and specialty to recommend human-centric investments, like safety training for students and teachers, as well as training on new safety hardware.

“It may be great that we’re purchasing all kinds of physical things that we can use; new camera systems, new software systems, which are all vitally important,” he said. “But a lot of times, maybe we’re not always trained in not only what to look for, but what to put into these systems, or ‘how do these systems work?”

Thus, the strategy for investing becomes figuring out not only what is needed in the short term, but more importantly: what is the weakest security aspect of that district or school?

“The first thing I always recommend is to do an analysis, or essentially a study or a review, a gap analysis, whatever you may want to call it, as to where are the priorities and where are the gaps in that particular school’s safety,” Coughran said.

 

The Role of Public-Private Partnerships

 
Due the nature of how the education industry has developed over the course of several decades, finding the right solution for your school district includes consulting with private entities, not just regulators or professionals at the U.S. Department of Education. Making the most of this reality is another recommendation of Coughran’s, whose organization partnered directly with school districts, and beyond just as a transactional solutions provider, in an effort improve school safety.

“The private sector really does play a vital role, and I almost call it a liaison, between government recommendations and what is really best for local schools and area schools,” Coughran said.

Often, there is a disconnect between what and how the government might advocate for action and how said advocacy bares out in practice. A common phrase used by the government to prepare teachers and students for an active shooter scenario, for example, and highlighted in its Ready campaign, is “Run, Hide, Fight.” Its tokenage is so well known that there’s even a recent movie named after it, following the lead protagonist as she “fight[s] for her life, and those of her fellow classmates, against a group of live-streaming school shooters.”

But while the government was well-intentioned in its message, the language has been a difficult one for educators and school professionals to maneuver. “Fighting” is not an attitude that schools want mixed into their official language, even for defensive tactics, and especially for young students who may struggle to fully understand the context.

This is where the advice, not just the solutions, of the private sector come in to play. Coughran’s H.E.R.O. program heard those concerns and developed a more age-appropriate approach to Run, Hide, Fight,” now rebranded as Hide, Escape, Run, Overcome. That change in approach is one of the reasons school boards like Newport-Mesa’s in California sought a partnership with Safe Kids Inc. Refining this language for school districts to get ahead of proactive safety training needs was possible due to collaboration between districts and SKI, and reflect some of the more holistic ways public-private partnerships can support school safety.

“And so again, some of these partnerships in the private sector of folks that are using different types of methodologies, different vernacular, different ways to instruct kids on some of the government high-level guidelines, that really are making it tangible and easy to digest for schools, for different age groups, for different venues, for different areas, are vitally important.”

Despite all the money ready to be used, spending on the right kinds of partnerships and the right kinds of resources is pertinent in a holistic school safety strategy, from preventing another mass shooting to helping kids work out their differences on the playground.

 

Collaboration Brings the Best Strategies to Light

 
Most every school now is partnered with local law enforcement to build community partnerships and in an attempt to keep schools safe from active assailants. The nuances of bringing police into schools, though, reveal that it isn’t always a 1:1 where more police equals safer students, and shouldn’t be the only approach to school safety investments, or even just personnel investments. Even Coughran, a former police officer himself, advises school districts to think outside of the box when it comes to building new and effective community partnerships.

“So the partnerships, really think beyond local law enforcement, think beyond your very local partners that may be helping you out, and consider looking at other partnerships at a broader level that can help bring in more information, that can help bring in more ideas in the area of school safety,” he said.

Coughran recommended districts look at federal agencies even, like FEMA and its strategy for youth preparedness and disasters, or the Department of Education’s working groups, for advice. But like with his recommendation to embrace private partnerships for their on-the-ground insights, so can turning to other sister school districts, within a given state or even across the nation, provide useful feedback for which technologies and training are most effective.

“Districts may be using other private style solutions, maybe they have a trainer or vendor, maybe they have a curriculum, maybe they have software solutions that they’re using in one state that could be used in different state, and just by the sheer fact that someone in that district hasn’t seen the marketing or didn’t get an email or hasn’t heard about it, there could be a great solution out there that just hasn’t been shared yet,” he said.

With so much federal and state funding being aimed at improving school safety, school districts have a unique opportunity to set a standard for proactive investments and reactive strategies that address both short-term COVID issues, as well as the deeper wounds of school violence, in one swift motion. If this task is too overwhelming for school district professionals, though, take a deep breath and heed Coughran’s advice: you don’t need to solve the school safety challenge on your own. Partnerships, with private solutions providers, with federal agencies, and with other school districts, will be the essential tactic for putting school safety funds to good use.

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