School Safety Interview: Kevin Jennings, Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education, Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools

Posted by on February 3, 2010

Kevin Jennings, Assistant Deputy Secretary, Safe and Drug Free Schools

Kevin Jennings, Assistant Deputy Secretary, Safe and Drug Free Schools

Intelligent, focused, and high-energy. Productive, efficient, and passionate. 

They are all words I heard used by respected education professionals to describe Kevin Jennings, the Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education who oversees the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools.

Kevin Jennings was appointed by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in July 2009 as assistant deputy secretary to head the Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools. He is the first career educator to hold this role, having spent 10 years as a high school history teacher before serving as the founding Executive Director of  the Gay, Lesbian and Straight Education Network (GLSEN), a national education organization working to insure that schools are safe places for all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. 

My colleagues and I had the opportunity to spend half a day with Kevin in September of 2009 when he gave welcoming remarks and observed an emergency planning tabletop exercise we presented for a school district funded by a grant from his office. 

This week, Kevin graciously shared some time to discuss with me his perspective on school safety, security, and emergency preparedness.

Biggest School Safety Myth

What is the biggest myth about school safety?

” ‘It can’t happen here’ is the biggest and most dangerous myth, as it lulls people into a false sense of security. As someone who lived in New York City in September 2001, I would have thought you were crazy if you had told me on September 10th that terrorists would fly planes into the World Trade Center and kill thousands of people the next morning,” Kevin Jennings said.

 The lesson for schools?

“Disaster takes unexpected forms and strikes when it wants to, not when we are ready for it. That’s why preparedness is so important. Don’t think for a minute it can’t happen to your school,”  Kevin advises school leaders.

School Emergency Preparedness

So what are schools doing well in emergency planning and in what areas can they improve?

Kevin believes awareness has improved because of horrifying events like Columbine, Virginia Tech, Hurricane Katrina, and the H1N1 virus.  But he also believes too many places still have not devoted the necessary time and resources to be truly prepared.

“The problem with school life, as one principal put it to me, is that ‘the urgent drives out the important every day.’  Emergency preparedness is important but not urgent for many school systems – until it becomes very urgent because of a crisis, by which point it is too late to plan and deal with the crisis effectively.  We simply have to make the time to make sure we are ready for the unthinkable before it strikes, not when it strikes,” Kevin stresses.

Top Gaps and Priority Areas for School Safety

Kevin sees the lack of a clear measurement system  as something which undermines efforts to identify and address critical issues.  As a result, he says, “…efforts tend to be ‘flavor of the month’ – i.e. whatever the current hot topic is, is what gets funded.”

The top two priority areas where K-12 schools need to focus on, according to Kevin:

  1. Better assessment of school climate so we can measure results, and
  2. More comprehensive approaches that address whole school reform rather than fragmented ones that focus on specific issues.

This focus is reflected in the proposed revamping of federal school safety programs and funding in President Obama’s Fiscal Year 2011 budget for the Education Department’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools. A laundry list of previously fragmented programs has been consolidated into four funding streams, the largest of which will be heavily driven by school climate data.

“What we are trying to do is bring greater rigor to the area of school safety by instituting a comprehensive school climate measurement system that will guide funding and programmatic decisions,” Kevin explained.

Advice for Boards, Superintendents, and Principals

What are Kevin Jennings’ most important three pieces of advice on school safety for boards, superintendents, and principals? 

He didn’t miss a beat in laying them out in a focused and concise manner:

  1. This has got to be a priority.
  2. You have to have a plan.
  3. You have to revisit your plan and have regular trainings and not think that, because you developed a plan and had a training five years ago, you’re all set.  Personnel turnover, changing times, and simple rustiness makes it imperative that we periodically review plans and retrain ourselves.

I want to personally thank Kevin for taking time for our interview during the week when the new proposed budget and direction for his office was publicly released.  His responsiveness and availability for our exchange at this busy time is greatly appreciated.

Ken Trump

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