Safety at School: Larger Than Life

June 1, 2013
Size can be a factor when it comes to school safety.

Risk to safety can come from school, home, community, television and the Internet; it can manifest at the ball field, theater, science lab or museum. Safety can be influenced by the age of a school, its layout and design, campus location and geography, external traffic patterns and the age of students served.  But three functions are universal in achieving safety:

•Observation: schoolwide, permeating ability to see and observe. 

•Communication: universal, accessible and expedient access to others in and out of the school building. 

•Control: ability to authorize, regulate and act on human and physical variables that define a safe school environment. 

These three functions work together, and the strength of each is dependent on the other.  

The Columbine tragedy reminded schools to review their safety provisions. A key to keeping them safe depends on the ability to know students in their daily interactions. Isolation, exclusion, verbal and physical abuse, cliques and modes of dress can serve as warning signs of future safety problems. Altercations and horseplay, ubiquitous to young people, always challenge safety. 

The larger and more complex the school and student body, the more numerous and complex are the points of observation and their relationships to the communications and control systems. The most critical point of observation rests with the staff, but they can’t see through walls. Obstructed sightlines to entryways, and play areas or corridors with heavy traffic hinder observation. The more glass walls in buildings, the higher potential for observation.  

Cameras can aid in observation. However, a large school has more enclosed areas, isolated spaces and entry points than a small school. 

School size makes a difference in the approach to safety, particularly in a crisis. A communications plan with supporting technology is “survival essential” in a large school. Instant voice access to offices (administration, counseling, custodial, police liaison) as well as immediate access to community emergency services must be provided. The communications plan must include expectations for staff and students in any situation where safety is threatened; a complete list of procedures for any safety need; and a continuous review process.    

After a tragedy precipitated by an intruder, people ask: “How did he get in?” Control isn’t limited to “who gets in;” it extends to all areas, including behavior in student passing areas, traffic in parking lots, bus dropoffs, chemicals in teaching labs and maintenance areas; and crowd control during events. Control is more complex in a larger school; responsibility and authority have a greater chance of being obscured simply by size and distance. 

Define control by role and responsibility for each safety issue. Some practical actions that aid in the challenge of creating safe large schools:

•Establish a safety plan addressing weak points for observation, communication and control.

•When remodeling, enhance supervision (replace walls with glass, remove obstructions and situate cameras strategically).

•Use technology to link to emergency resources within and outside the school.

•Detail crisis plans; review periodically and test competence of personnel.

•Urge personnel to be observers and insist on open communications.

•Place cameras in schools and buses, and situate where staff can observe easily.

•Secure all entries and have one controlled entry for non-school personnel.  

•Supervise parking areas both to ensure safe driving and behavior, and to quickly identify non-school activity.

•Empower parents and families in the work of safety observation and communication.

Regardless of school size, focus on each student’s safety, one student at a time, and build the safety program up from the “one-student” base. 

Giroux is senior advisor for school operations for ATS&R Planners/
Architects/Engineers, Minneapolis. He is retired superintendent for the Anoka-Hennepin (Minn.) School District.  

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