Just a Janitor

If my readers will indulge me a bit, I would like to revisit a topic we covered about a year ago because it is important enough to compel me to do so. I really don’t like hearing people say things like, “What can I do? I am just a janitor.” You can substitute the word janitor for police officer, teacher, secretary, receptionist, school nutrition employee, school bus driver, paraprofessional, security officer or whatever job title you would like, and the point remains the same: everyone and anyone who draws a paycheck or works as a volunteer at a school can have a profound effect on the lives of students, other employees and their schools. The burning question is, do they know this, and just as importantly, does everyone in our organization know this?

Any school or school system that fails to specifically train, empower and encourage all of its employees to actively seek to identify potentially dangerous situations and take appropriate corrective actions is wasting precious resources and has serious life-threatening gaps in their safety, security and emergency preparedness strategy that cannot be offset by any amount of security technology. It has always blown my mind that school districts will sometimes spend $10, $30 or $50 million on a security system upgrade but will not spend $30,000 or $40,000 to develop a staff development system to help staff understand what they need to do to work hand–in-hand with these technologies to maximize the effectiveness of the great technology designed to protect them.

When we perform school security, safety and emergency preparedness assessments, one of the most noticeable differences between schools and districts is the manner in which employees are or are not incorporated into the safety strategy. We have noticed a close and powerful connection between this aspect of the safety strategies in schools, and we see distinct correlation between our assessment findings and the integration of people into the safety net of schools being assessed.

I was recently working with an excellent New England school district for a week-long series of crisis plan development and participated in a community presentation that was well-attended by school staff, parents, community leaders and students. Some students and a translator had asked a series of questions relating to equity of school policies that required anyone who participated in a fight to be punished. The cultural context was not mentioned nor apparently picked up by myself or any of the district officials or school resource officers present.

After the meeting, the building custodian made an extremely insightful observation about fights in the school where the presentation was held. He stated that the school served a large population of children who had been relocated to the community as refugees due to civil war in their country in sub-Saharan Africa. He noted that while most students and staff at the school tended to lump the students into one ethnic grouping, the students in the school were actually from two very different tribes with powerful cultural influences that had existed for centuries that often resulted in students from one tribal background attacking students from the other tribe. He felt that students from both tribes had been properly integrated with the rest of the student population and that students and staff seemed largely unaware of the cultural background relating to these centuries-old conflicts. He felt that the school could reduce fights and significantly improve school climate by finding ways to properly integrate the student body as a whole.

After a discussion with personnel who work heavily with the district’s efforts for school safety, climate and culture, it became apparent to us all that the custodian was likely very much on mark and that this simple, yet key gap, had been missed for a period of several years. As we walked out the door, we thanked him for his insight and assured him that the matter would be discussed by the district’s safety team. He replied that it was just his observation and then said that he was, “just a janitor.” I quickly pointed out to him that he should never say such a thing. After all, a lot of smart people with master’s degrees and doctorate’s had missed what he had noticed. Every school employee has the incredible power to affect meaningful improvement in the safety, security, climate and culture of their school. Please make sure that they know it! 

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 www.safehavensinternational.org.