Cost-Effective Ways to Enhance School Safety
Here are several examples of school safety improvements that can be implemented at little or no cost.
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There are two words that school superintendents love to hear–cheap and free. When it comes to school safety and security, it is critical that school administrators take the time to implement relatively easy and inexpensive safety measures in an all-hazards approach to school safety.
Although Illini Bluffs Unit District #327 has invested significant money in high dollar items such as a new phone system, a new public announcement system, a new camera system, new exterior doors and a new fire alarm system, there are many things that have been done that are more budget-friendly.
Here are some examples of low-hanging fruit that are either free or relatively inexpensive to implement, in an effort to improve upon the overall safety plan and to further instill a culture of school safety.
Policies, Procedures, and Drills
- Conduct your own site safety assessment. Something is better than nothing. You don’t have to pay significant money to outside sources when you can do rudimentary things yourself. Use a multi-disciplinary approach to identify and evaluate physical security.
- Lock all outside doors and reinforce a ‘no propping” policy. This is a simple but effective concept.
- Enhance fire drills by periodically implementing injectables. For example, blocking off selected exits to see how students and staff react, or “kidnap” a student (an employee’s child works best when you give the employee notice) to see if the staff recognizes the student’s absence.
- Practice a reverse evacuation for fire drills. Sometimes, conditions outside might be more dangerous than inside. Likewise, practice a delayed evacuation. Teach staff members situational awareness. Stop, look, and listen. Is there smoke? Are there flames? Are there strange noises?
- Bus evacuation drills: engage students in the decision-making process. WIN: What’s Important Now? Ask students how they would react to a fire in the back, in the front or if the bus were turned on its side. Do they know about roof hatches? Do they know about egress windows and how they operate? Do all staff participate in drills, besides drivers, recognizing that buses are used for extracurricular activities and field trips?
- Active Shooter Drills: crawl, walk, run with this progression. Start with announced drills, but progress to unannounced drills ultimately ending with what are called level 5 drills. (But be sure to let local first responders know ahead of time that a drill is being held so that they don’t think it is an actual event and respond with weapons drawn, which could pose a danger.) Level 5 drills again engage students and staff in the WIN philosophy. Open individual classroom doors during a lockdown and present scenarios to students and staff in each room. What would you do if smoke started to come under your door? How would you go about breaking the window, if necessary, to escape? What might cause you to have to exit the room?
- Single point of entry: Do you require all visitors, including students, to enter through a single location for easier monitoring?
- Substitute teachers: Do you conduct annual training with subs on safety protocols and procedures? Do you inform veteran teachers when subs are present in the event of an emergency?
- Physical access control: Do office staff have a direct line of sight to the entry door? Do they have a direct line of sight to a video/camera monitor? Do you have a monitor in the receptionist area that shows camera views from across the building or complex?
- Proper visitor management and control is imperative to maintaining a safe environment. Do visitors sign in and sign out? Do they provide identification? Is contact information collected? Are visitors escorted? Are packages, purses and bags subject to search? Are temporary ID badges provided and worn visibly?
- Landscaping: Are sightlines maximized by trimming or removing plants so that they are less than 2 feet tall within 6 feet of walkways? Less than 3 feet tall between 6-12 feet away from walkways? Are bushes trimmed to less than 6 inches below windowsills? Have thorny bushes and shrubs been used to discourage access? Are trees planted far enough away from buildings to avoid being used to access upper floors or the roof? Have trees been “limbed up” at least 7 feet from grade?
- Security lighting deters illegal activity, encourages positive behavior, increases use of space, reduces fear, aids in the identification of intruders and increases natural surveillance. How often are nighttime lighting audits being done to identify dark or dimly lit areas? Are exterior fixtures numbered to easily communicate non-functional lights to maintenance staff? Does local law enforcement routinely patrol the grounds at night?
- Have all exterior doors been numbered consecutively around the building, inside and outside, using reflective numbers at least 6 inches high? Have key retention devices been installed at main entrances to allow for access by first responders?
- Glazing/windows: Have objects such as large rocks, located outside, been removed to avoid smash and grab behavior? Has laminated film been applied to windows at main entrances? Do windows have shades to use during lockdowns to reduce visibility? Have all classrooms with exterior windows been numbered to provide an easy determination of location by first responders?
- Do wayfinding and signage complement access control and natural surveillance? Are signs present throughout the complex clearly identifying entry points and entry procedures?
- Are parking lots free from plant growth that limit visibility? Are pedestrian walkways clearly striped and signed? Is traffic forced to remote parts of the lot?
- Does the vestibule have a layered entry forcing visitors to go through at least two sets of locked doors?
- Are signs present throughout the interior of the complex identifying individual classrooms as well as directional signs to offices, restrooms, and common areas?
- Are employees inside the building taught to confront visitors that don’t have visible badges? Are employees taught to escort them to the office?
Social-Emotional Issues for Students/Training for Adults
- Beyond conducting drills and hardening the facility, perhaps the most important aspect of school safety is developing relationships with students. Have you put pictures of your students on lockers, had faculty and staff walk by, and then place check marks on the photos signifying that they have a close relationship with individual kids? This is a great way to identify students who would benefit from specialized support.
- Have you conducted a mental health awareness day in your school focusing on wellness, self-care and sensory activities? This could incorporate therapy dogs, art activities, self-care jeopardy, physical activity and more.
- Have you invited law enforcement into the school on institute days to train staff on safety issues? Has law enforcement conducted hands-on training with staff in regards to situational awareness? Do you encourage officers to stop by the school during the school day simply to provide a presence and to engage informally with students?
- Do you have a behavioral threat assessment team? Does it include faculty, staff, social workers, counselors, psychiatrists, administrators and first responders? Does the team meet regularly? Does it meet pre-emptively or only after an incident has occurred?
School Safety Doesn’t Have to Break the Bank
Students will not learn optimally unless they feel safe and secure in their environment. Addressing school safety issues does not have to break the bank. Although time is an investment, kids are the greatest investment by far. How much are you willing to invest?
Dr. Roger Alvey is superintendent of Illini Bluffs district #327, a small, rural prek-12 school district located in Glasford, Illinois. All three schools are on one campus with roughly 900 students.