Competitive Edge

Today’s education market is tough. Changes such as the increase in home schooling, school choice, changing expectations of prospective students and their parents, and economic changes are putting school officials under even more pressure to improve their schools. In the post 9/11 world, a high-quality safety program is a must for any organization that wants to maximize its competitive edge. Tighter budgets often make this an even more challenging proposition.

Many educational leaders are realizing that one of the best ways to realize their vision for growth and improvement of their schools is to develop a truly world-class safety and emergency preparedness program. Though it is difficult to quantify, there are clearly students and parents who opt to go elsewhere, due to indications that particular institutions do not make safety a priority.

Some would argue that every school can benefit from this approach, even if growth is not a positive factor. One public middle school, which had to cap enrollment at 650 students, found safety to be instrumental to its success. When a new principal was selected for this sinking ship, she focused tirelessly on safety, order, and discipline. Within two years, the region’s top math, science, music, and English teachers, along with the best support staff, were competing for a chance to work at this wonderful school. The school, previously rated as the worst middle school in the district, has since been selected as a school of excellence, visited by educators from Germany, Holland, and Israel, and was featured on PBS and Good Morning America.

More school administrators are making a connection between safety and increased enrollment of desirable students as well. A new superintendent, selected by a rural public school system that was losing large numbers of students to area districts, decided to survey the students who had left. The majority of those who responded to the survey listed chronic bullying as their reason to exercise school choice and leave the district. In this extreme case, the small school system was being dismantled by bullies. An aggressive revitalization of the district’s safety program showed immediate results. This energetic and astute school superintendent recognized the importance of safety in turning his troubled school system around and took action. By making safety his district’s number one priority, numerous other improvements could also be realized.

Sharp independent school administrators are also realizing that in the post 9-11 world, a high-quality school safety and emergency preparedness program can be an excellent way to attract students and parents in an increasingly competitive market. Especially for independent schools in tough markets with fierce competition, a top-flight safety program speaks volumes about the quality of a school and the added value parents receive for their significant investment. Many administrators and boards are realizing that a mediocre safety program can quietly turn parents away from an otherwise excellent school. Parents increasingly notice whether a prospective school is equipped with automatic external defibrillators, security cameras, first aid kits, emergency telephone call stations, and safety personnel.

One campus administrator reported that his private school picked up more than 200 new students after a dramatic increase in the number of security officers and the implementation of much firmer discipline policies. In contrast, a student at a Catholic school recently complained to me that her school no longer expelled students for possession of marijuana and this showed her that the school was in decline. This bright student who formerly loved her school has become a walking negative advertisement for this school. She now perceives the school as desperate to keep students regardless of quality and shares that view freely. In today’s ever more competitive world of education, high quality and high value include a higher degree of safety.

School administrators are now learning that trying to keep incidents quiet, to portray an image of safety instead of focusing on safety itself, can create serious and irreparable damage to a school’s image. Some of the largest school districts in the nation, as well as some of the most elite independent schools, have allowed this approach to catastrophically degrade their reputation. At the same time, other schools are growing and improving by taking advantage of the opportunity to build public support, engage their students more fully, reduce fiscal waste, and improve the learning environment by focusing on a truly world-class safety program. There is perhaps not better way to gain trust, respect, and confidence than to get an“A+” on safety.

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