Independent, private school security assessments: Creating a culture of safety

Posted by on March 10, 2014

Independent, parochial, and other private school heads are often concerned that assessments of their security and emergency preparedness might conflict with their unique school cultures. We believe, however, that part of their unique cultures can, and should, include a culture of safety. No schools are immune from a security incident or emergency situation.

Higher tuition does not always equate to higher security levels

When parents spend $20,000 or $10,000, or for that matter $5,000, per year for private school tuition, there is an inherent assumption that their school leaders have “dotted their i’s and crossed their t’s” with security and emergency preparedness planning. While in many cases they have, in other cases they have not.

A number of years ago my colleague and I stood outside of an independent school for nearly 45 minutes in the morning watching parents drop off lower school to upper school students without one adult from the school supervising. We were astonished by the absence of adult staff supervision. We were also quite surprised that the parents who were paying more than $15,000-per-year tuition were not equally astonished.

Make safety a part of your private school culture

Fortunately, we have also seen the opposite scenario. A few months ago at a respected private school in the DC Capitol region where we were conducting a consultation, we observed a lower school head and his staff highly visible in greeting students as they were dropped off by parents in the car drop-off circle. Meanwhile, at the upper school level, we found school staff by the door and in the hallways greeting arriving students with one support staff member politely stopping me and my colleague to identify our purpose at the school.

One of the common threads in those independent, parochial, and other private schools where we have seen safety as a priority is that it is done in a very positive and welcoming way. As we say in our consultations with school leaders, one of the most powerful school safety questions that any school staff member can ask a stranger in the hallway is, “May I help you?”

Some of the best school security measures are invisible

Physical security measures in private schools can be aesthetically pleasing. Fencing can be wrought iron instead of chain link. Surveillance cameras can be housed in small domes that go unnoticed to many visitors who are accustomed to seeing such signs of security in their corporate offices and suburban shopping centers. Crime prevention can be incorporated into facility designs and campuses in methods less obvious to the naked eye.

But the first and best line of defense is always a well-trained, highly-alert school staff and student body. Security and preparedness mindsets can, and should, be a positive part of the culture of a school.

Independent and other private school heads need not worry about safety conflicting with their unique school cultures. Instead, they should be striving to make safety an integral part of their unique school cultures. Doing so will reassure their parents, serve as a strong marketing tool for their school, and most of all strengthen student, faculty, and staff safety and preparedness.

Ken Trump

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2 thoughts on “Independent, private school security assessments: Creating a culture of safety

  1. Broeck Oder says:

    Great column! The “trick,” of course, is getting private school leaders on board. As a veteran of 25 years of security and emergency planning work in private schools, let me note some of the problems involved include: “It can’t happen here;” “God will protect us;” “Those laws apply only to the public schools;” “Our students would never do something like that” or “We don’t have those types of kids here;” and so on. A key problem as well is that in most private schools, the overly self-impressed administrators think they are also the best choice to be Incident Commander during an emergency. A few months ago, in response to my question about procedures during an emergency, a private school head said to me, “I’m sure we’ll figure it out,” meaning they could devise a solution on the fly during an emergency. When I pointed out his complete lack of experience and training to be the Incident Commander would preclude him “figuring it out’ in the midst of a crisis, he waved me off as if my concerns were meaningless. I would like to say that this experience was the exception, but it is, in fact, the norm in many private schools. If parents do not start demanding evidence of effective training for staff and evidence of meaningful planning, then I fear we will only get most private schools on board after a terrible tragedy. Parents must INSIST on seeing plans, evidence of meaningful training for those who will be IC, etc. Too many parents accept the cooing assurances of private school leaders, but I urge parents everywhere to be more assertive and hold school leaders accountable.

  2. My Trump and Mr. Oder are both bang on. I am finding the same attitudes in the public schools as distance from incidents seems to provide a false safety blanket to those in charge of the budgets. The prevailing view remains that the excuse not to spend money on security is that it would change the school into an armed camp and put a barrier between the children and their parents. These are excuses because as security practitioners know, most hardware is subtle and would barely be noticed. My ongoing frustration remains in getting reluctant officials to pay heed to the risks. In some cases they won’t even accept an offer of free service because they do not want a review that would hold them to account with their inaction if something did occur. Politics remain in the way and I believe many officials resist on purpose. It seems the only way to affect change is through the people that pay the bills.

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