Understanding the Legalities and Practicalities of School Safety

Here are some highlights of the laws and tips for what financially strapped K-12 districts can accomplish to improve security and emergency preparedness.

The U.S. Supreme Court, in the seminal case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Shawnee County, Kansas, stated, “Today, education is perhaps the most important function of state and local governments. Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures for education both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society.” To that end, it comes as no surprise that both the state and federal governments have enacted a multitude of laws aimed at the protection of children, schools, educators and staff; so many that one could not possibly cover them all in one article.

Although many schools face tight budget constraints these days, schools can, within their resources, take steps to promote safety. This is not an exhaustive discussion of all the laws and legalities for maintaining a safe school and indeed, these laws vary significantly state-to-state.  The following are just a few highlights of the laws and some ideas for what even the most financially strapped schools can do at the local level.

Schools Must Develop a Comprehensive School-Safety Plan

The U.S. Department of Education, as well as many states, require schools to create a comprehensive school safety plan. Because there can be myriad obligations at the state and federal level, a best practice is to have a single comprehensive plan that facilitates school site coordination of safety efforts and avoids duplication of effort. No one likes having to look in six different policies and manuals to get the answer. Campuses should make their plans user friendly.  A single comprehensive plan complying with both state and federal laws, and containing your anti-discrimination/harassment policy and hate crime reporting procedures makes it a one-stop shop for your administrators, teachers, students and parents.

But what is this comprehensive school plan? Many states maintain their own statutes with regard to what is required in a school’s plan. For example, California Education Code sections 32280 through 32289 and 35294 through 35294.15 require and outline a specific policy for creating and maintaining a “Safe and Orderly Environment Conducive to Learning.” Schools must use the “Safe Schools: A Planning Guide for Action” prepared by the California Department of Education (CDE) in developing their school safety plan. A school site council or a school safety planning committee is typically responsible for developing and annually updating the plan.

The U.S. Department of Education also maintains other similar guides for preparation of a comprehensive school safety plan, including “Practical Information on Crisis Planning: A Guide for Schools and Communities” and “Threat Assessment in Schools: A guide to managing threatening situations and to creating safe school climates.”

Your comprehensive plan should include procedures for notifying teachers of dangerous pupils.   Teachers should be notified of pupils who have committed certain offenses within the last few years, or of any student reasonably suspected to have engaged in any such activity. (See Share Information With Teachers About Dangerous Students sidebar).

This means that elementary, middle and high schools will have to communicate and share records.  You may be concerned about laws restricting disclosure of student records. A discussion of these concerns can be found in a prior Campus Safety magazine article from January, 2011 titled, “Your Rights Under FERPA.” 

Many state laws also impose additional notification requirements on district superintendents and principals to inform counselors, teachers and administrators when a student is found guilty of a felony or misdemeanor involving certain kinds of misconduct. 

The comprehensive school plan should also include the following:

  • District’s and school’s discrimination and harassment policy (gender relations have been a component of many recent incidents of mass school violence)
  • Procedure for reporting hate crimes and harassment punishable by suspension or expulsion
  • An acceptable Internet use policy for students
  • A transportation safety plan
  • A workplace injury and illness prevention and security program, which is often required by a state’s occupational safety and health administration

Your state’s statutes may very well require much more to the comprehensive school safety plan, and a thorough review of those statutes will help to ensure your plan is in compliance.

Prevention Doesn’t Always Cost a Fortune

There are many easy, low- or no-cost ways to actually prevent violence from happening in the first place; in some cases, these steps are required by law.

Teach Staff to Watch Out for Danger Signs

Employees should be trained and informed how to recognize, avoid and report school violence.  These red flags can easily be discussed at your next staff meeting. Teachers and counselors should have an open discussion among one another and with administrators about what they see and hear and whether to be concerned. Discuss who they can talk to and how to deal with a red flag. Do not leave classified employees out of the discussion. Employees who work in front offices or on campus grounds are often the ones who deal with outsiders seeking campus access and can also be the eyes and ears of campus administrators when there is a potentially dangerous situation. 

Staff should be trained to look for signs of potential problems with students (e.g., sudden decrease in productivity; lack of motivation; unusual, irrational and/or bizarre thoughts or behaviors; not getting along with others or bullying; threats; etc.).

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