The Little Things That Count

Security technology, community-based school safety plans, detailed emergency operations plans and multidisciplinary threat management teams. All of these cornerstones of a viable school safety strategy require considerable time and effort. No school even approaches an acceptable level of safety without them. Each of these and other important areas of the big picture of school safety require a commitment to safety. At the same time, it is easy to lose sight of the basics of a safe school environment.

Too often, we forget the importance of paying attention to the little things in life that are so critical for a safe and effective learning environment. Some schools are equipped with the most expensive state-of-the-art security equipment, only to experience a high rate of problematic behavior. Why are we so surprised when a major act of violence occurs in an environment where students, staff and visitors see, hear, condone, tolerate and even participate in a host of unhealthy behaviors each day?

Respect the Person

As just one common example, what would happen if an angry parent entered an elementary school in your community and loudly used profanity towards a school secretary, a teacher, a custodian or a bus driver? It astounds and bewilders me that in many American communities, such incidents occur without meaningful consequence to those who abuse school staff members. School officials in most states have a list of possible recourses, including having the perpetrator taken into custody by law enforcement officers, having officers issue the violator a citation to appear in court and even having the culprit banned from school property. And yet, rather than take these reasonable and rational steps to support school employees and to maintain a safe, peaceful and orderly environment for our kids, many schools tolerate this incredibly unacceptable antisocial behavior.

Why would it surprise us that a student would openly curse or threaten an educator when we, by our lack of action, demonstrate that it is acceptable for adults to do the same thing? We should also not be surprised to have employee recruitment and retention problems if we allow staff members to be treated inhumanely by individuals who have little or no respect or concern for others.

I certainly hope that such incidents are not tolerated in your schools. I must, unfortunately, report that I have had feedback from thousands of seminar participants from around the nation who say that their schools tolerate such conduct. The impact of this deterioration of school climate is significant.

Respect the Place

I recently had the good fortune to hear a presentation by Gregory Thomas, who serves as the executive director for the Division of Student Safety and Prevention Services for the New York City Public School System. In addition to being a talented speaker, he makes some astute observations. Thomas places great stock in maintaining a clean school as an important crime reduction measure. Many experts on crime have made the observation that facilities that are in disrepair and where trash is in evidence are at greater risk for crime and disruptive behaviors. We should not expect our youth to respect a place that we do not respect enough to keep clean.

Teach Politeness

Politeness is another environmental standard that has a major impact on how people act. When I attended the FBI National Academy program in Quantico, Va. for three months, I was deeply impressed with something the FBI has managed to do that I have never seen done so well before. Realizing that the hundreds of trainees from various organizations around the world will have to live apart from friends and family for extended periods of time, they have created a remarkably friendly and polite environment.

A standard of conduct has been established that requires people to speak politely to each other as they meet one another in the halls of the large maze of connected buildings. The impact of being greeted continually through the day with“good morning, sir” or“good evening, ma’am” is something that one must experience to appreciate. While I have never seen anyone achieve such an incredible level of genuine participation elsewhere, many schools have done an excellent job of creating a warm, friendly and polite environment. Efforts on these lines will bear considerable fruit in creating an environment that feels safe while actually being safer than they would otherwise be.

Enforce Your Policies

Without viable, appropriate and enforceable policies, it is difficult at the least to maintain a safe and orderly environment in most settings. This is even more telling when viewed in the context of schools. There are a host of behaviors that, when left unchecked, tend to escalate into problems between people. When students and even staff are allowed to treat others with disrespect, we can expect problems. And most importantly, any form of threatening or physically invasive behavior must be addressed promptly and effectively.

By focusing on those seemingly minor things in schools, your staff can support the major components of your safety strategy and hopefully avoid major problems. Take care of the little things so they do not escalate into major problems.

One of the nation’s best - known school safety experts, Michael S. Dorn has been a full-time campus safety practitioner for the past 22 years. He has authored and co-authored 14 books, lectures frequently around the nation and has provided consultation and technical assistance to more than 2,000 public safety agencies and learning institutions around the world. He can be reached at .

About the Author

Michael S. Dorn has helped conduct security assessments for more than 6,000 K-12 schools, keynotes conferences internationally and has published 27 books including Staying Alive – How to Act Fast and Survive Deadly Encounters. He can be reached at