Since the Parkland shooting, threats to schools across the country have increased exponentially. According to the Educators School Safety Network, threats have risen from the typical 10 a day to more than 70 a day. They come through social media, emails, word of mouth.
Thankfully, investigators found most of these threats to be unfounded.
Still, each threat leaves in its wake frightened teachers, administrators, families, and children. We know, though, that schools are no place for fear. Students cannot learn when they are scared.
The responsibility of allaying these fears so that learning can continue sits squarely with the district leader and her team. In our years of supporting and developing school and district leaders, one of our foundational teachings has been that leaders set the tone. Their energy, thinking, and stance influences the entire school culture.
A leader must be extremely intentional in how she communicates and maintains high visibility in these moments, listening closely to student, parent, and staff concerns about safety and seeking to collectively address them.
What does this look like in practice?
Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
Perhaps one of the hardest parts of managing a school crisis is figuring out what to say, to whom, and when. While different scenarios call for different approaches, there is no doubt that transparency is critical. Try to hide information and it will get out anyway. Get in front of the situation and assure the entire school community that safety is top priority and that procedures and precautions are in place. Former Baltimore City Public Schools Superintendent Andres Alonso offers some sage advice.
Given the crisis in front of us, leaders need to rigorously review all safety and emergency procedures and share them with all stakeholders, including students. This could include consulting with local law enforcement officials to ensure a partnership is well established for addressing incidents as soon as they arise.
Build a school climate and infrastructure for supporting children’s social emotional needs
Good school and district leaders create climates of inclusion, where everyone respects one another, listens to each other and believes in each other’s potential. That happens when you encourage dialogue in classrooms, in staff meetings, and in community meetings.
We urge leaders to work with all school personnel to establish systems of support for students who are experiencing depression, high anxiety, bullying and unusual and consistent spurts of anger. From training teachers to recognize and support trauma victims to partnering with community organizations making sure you have the right counselors on staff to support children, this blog by Carole Learned-Miller outlines how district leaders can ensure they have trauma sensitive schools.
Look out for your staff
Since your staff are on the front lines of helping their students cope, it’s critical to look out for their mental health. This resource from the National Association of School Psychologists explains the warning signs of trauma and tips for caring for the caregivers.
Just as teachers need support for talking with students about threats and violence, so too do parents and guardians. This resource from the National Association of School Psychologists offers guidance to parents and teachers about how to have age-appropriate conversations with children about violence.
Listen to your students and create opportunities for them to voice concerns and ideas
A key part of allaying fears among students is creating opportunities for them to talk about their fears and strategies for addressing them. Teachers and counselors can facilitate discussions in classrooms and advisories. The upcoming days of action also offer a chance for students to do this. The March For Our Lives on March 24 and the National School Walkout on March 14 give students a chance to safely and freely express their views on school safety and gun violence. How better for students to learn about civics and government than to actively participate in democracy?
Our nation is in crisis. As educational leaders, let’s use this time as an opportunity to engage our communities in a common purpose that ensures the safety, health, and well-being of our students.