Safety as a Priority

I am very blessed to have the opportunity to work with and interact with some of the very best minds in the field of school safety. I feel fortunate to count among my friends and colleagues Gregory Thomas, the director for School Preparedness and Planning at the National Center for Disaster Preparedness at Columbia University; Bill Modzeleski, deputy associate under secretary of the United States Department of Education Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools; Marleen Wong, director of School Crisis and Intervention Unit for the National Center for Child Traumatic Stress at UCLA; Sonayia Shepherd, incident support specialist for the CDC; and Dave Grossman, expert and best selling author on violence issues.

I consider these exemplary individuals to be truly gifted, highly intelligent, thoroughly grounded, extensively experienced experts who have impeccable credentials and stellar reputations as experts in their fields not only in this country, but internationally as well. These heavy hitters are in big demand by those who desperately need answers. To get Marlene Wong or Sony Shepherd to work with your district, you may have to ask a year in advance. Bill Modzelleski is often given to an almost weary appearance as he contends with school safety issues on behalf of the United Sates government, and trying to catch up with Dave Grossman or Gregory Thomas is like trying to keep up with a four-minute miler in the Boston Marathon. More importantly, these tremendous assets to our nation are all truly compassionate and tireless advocates for the children.

One thing each of these experts has expressed to me is their concern that there are still too many schools and school systems where safety, security, emergency preparedness and recovery measures are not what they could and should be. Those of us who make the safety of children our life’s work find it very frustrating to still see school children die or otherwise suffer when we know that it did not have to be. Most of us see great improvements and many good people using best practices, incredible technology and outright hard work to make school a safe place. Unfortunately, we also see more unaddressed safety concerns than should be the case in today’s world. Budget crises, critical personnel needs, a plethora of standards and goals to be met, and other competing concerns draw time, resources and attention from safety issues in schools. At the same time, the question must be raised, how many children must die, how many badly bungled emergency responses must occur and how much emotional trauma must be borne before every school in our great nation takes on these issues to the very best of their ability?

For a soul searching self exam, consider if your school district does the following:

    • annual tactical site surveys to ensure that safety, security and emergency preparedness measures are based on your actual risks and resources rather than simple perceptions;

    • annual surveys of staff and students to spot areas that need attention, rather than waiting to respond to problems after the fact;

    • a written school safety plan, developed with input from a variety of local officials to fit local needs, as recommended by the United States Department of Education and most school safety centers around the nation, with specific and detailed sections to cover each of the four phases of emergency management — prevention and mitigation, preparedness, response and recovery;

    • formally trained employees who know their role during crisis situations and how to use the plan;

    • emergency preparedness and response plans that have been tested with a progressively more difficult series of drills, tabletop exercises, functional exercises and full-scale exercises, as recommended by the Federal Emergency Management Agency; and

    • safety, security and emergency preparedness procedures that are actually followed.

While there are many specific approaches to student safety that are perfect for one school while not being appropriate for another, the pass/fail items listed above are fairly standard best practices agreed upon by most experts. If you are missing even one of these, the safety and emotional well being of students and staff in your schools is not what it should be. If several or more are missing, significant and needless potential for harm is present. While a truly first class safety strategy will involve other measures beyond those listed above, no school or district can in good faith say it is doing everything it should be doing if these bases are not covered.

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